Community rallies around survivor of abuse, homelessness

From the top-floor office of Kennesaw State University President Dan Papp, you can see the sun setting over Kennesaw Mountain, its rays stretching out from the horizon when another day is done. In the distance, you can also see a neon Waffle House sign.

A few years ago, a teen mom and her baby were living in a car in the parking lot of that Waffle House, with a jacket and baby blanket to keep them warm at night. The teen’s own mother — a Waffle House waitress who worked the overnight shift — would drive her to school in the morning and keep the baby during the day.

That was Felicia Villegas’ life as a Marietta High School sophomore.

Today, she is 20, working full time and hoping to attend Kennesaw State University soon. She shared the story of the harrowing sexual abuse she suffered as a child and homelessness she endured as an adolescent in a recent AJC Personal Journey feature. She became pregnant at 13 as a result of the abuse; her abuser is now serving a life sentence.

A number of readers have responded since the story ran. A Marietta resident provided a backpack full of school supplies and a lunchbox for Felicia’s now-6-year-old daughter.

“A lunchbox! I always wanted one,” the first-grader delighted when she received the gift.

Others have contributed to a fund set up for Felicia at First Landmark Bank, at 307 N. Marietta Parkway, Marietta. (Banking officer Whitney Freaney is the contact if you’re interested in helping. Her direct line is 770-799-7960 and email is wfreaney@firstlandmarkonline.com.)

A team from Kennesaw State University, moved by Felicia’s determination and perseverance, invited her on a campus tour and is working to help her become a KSU Owl. Papp personally invited her to his office and chatted with her for a few minutes.

“Are you ready to start college?” the genial Papp asked. Felicia, usually outgoing and confident, was too nervous to say much. She nodded and said, “Yes.”

“We’ll do everything we can to help you,” Papp said, “but guess who’s got to do all the studying?”

Felicia lit up at that point.

“That’s OK,” she said. “I love school!”

She works at the Zaxby’s near WellStar Kennestone Hospital. With her next paycheck, she will register for the SAT, which she plans to take in October. An International Baccalaureate student while at Marietta High School, who graduated with her class despite teen motherhood, periodic homelessness and the time she had to take away to testify against her abuser during his trial in Austin, Texas, she hopes to start college in January.

When she does, she’ll be able to do some classwork online thanks to Kim Gresh, a longtime, active supporter of the YWCA of Northwest Georgia who secured a laptop for her. The YWCA twice took in Felicia and her daughter when they had nowhere to live, and keeps in close contact. Executive director Holly Comer, who arranged for Felicia’s busted home air conditioning system to be fixed, joined her and Gresh for lunch recently, and they surprised her with the laptop.

“Oh, wow,” said Felicia, again momentarily at a loss for words. She hopes to study criminal psychology and would like to work with law enforcement and help other young victims of abuse.

Given her past, Felicia is not big on physical contact. She doesn’t like crowds and winces when people try to hug her. As she walked out of Papp’s office the day of her KSU tour, she was trembling, her eyes glistening. I put my hand lightly on her back for support.

“How do you feel?” I asked.

Felicia looked out the window. Her eyes were not fixed in the direction of the Waffle House but rather toward the mountain and the sun’s rays, reaching endlessly out toward forever.

“I feel alive,” she said.

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