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A passion for politics propels her promise

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published May 4, 2007


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Riverview High junior Kayla Reigner stood in the room full of accomplished women, feeling awed and inspired, and then realized some day she may be the accomplished woman helping to honor a teen.

In essence, that is what the Athena Society's Young Women of Promise program is all about. For 26 years, the Tampa organization, which includes Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank, honors 10 high school juniors who show tremendous promise.

In honoring Kayla as one of the 2007 recipients, Athena chose a student who ranks at the top of her class with a 5.17 grade point average, leads the school's Ophelia Project chapter and will attend Girls State this summer.

Over sandwiches at DaSilva's Coffee House, Kayla and I talked about empowering teenage girls, becoming America's first female president and the pressures of adolescence.

Pull up a chair and join us. ERNEST: Do you think someday you could fit in a room with the kind of women you met at the Athena Society?

KAYLA: Oh, yeah. I want to go into politics and be an advocate for women's rights and women's issues. I hope I'm there one day because they stand for everything I do. Why politics?

I've been getting invited to all these political things. I'm going to Girls State and a leadership program at UCF, and so it's almost like it's leading me in that direction. I'm getting to the point where I'm more involved in politics and I want to go out there and fight and change things. The domestic abuse laws are not right. You can abuse an animal and get a harsher punishment than beating up a woman. I want to fight for that kind of stuff. I want to be president. Is America ready for a woman president?

Not this election. Maybe if Condoleezza Rice was running. So we should wait for you?

I think maybe we should. I think it's going to be cool to have a woman president. I just want it to be the right woman. Tell me about your involvement with the Ophelia Project.

It's all about empowering young women and creating a social, physical, emotional and social environment for girls. It's very cool. Is it a difficult society for girls to navigate through?

I would say yes, if you don't have the right kind of guidance. There are eating disorders, and with the media nowadays, all you see are these little stick girls. We're pressured in that way, and sex is such a big deal. And drugs just lead to more bad things. We're pressured. How do you navigate those waters?

My parents' guidance. I've been raised in a strict home, and my faith. Knowing what's expected of me through my faith, I really don't get caught up in all of that. How do you manage it all?

That's a good question. Sometimes I'm really overwhelmed, but they're all things that I'm really passionate about so I make sure that I have time. When you feel like you can't control something, you may turn to anorexia or find other ways of trying to control things. With my parents' divorce, it got bad and it felt like I couldn't control anything with that. It really hurt bad. So I've gone over the top at school. If I were to start doing bad at school, I would go crazy. What's one of the most pressing issues facing your school?

One thing that's been driving me crazy is so many people are caught up in drugs and alcohol. ... I hate seeing so many good people that have changed so much because of the influences they've gotten mixed up in. Do you get labeled as a nerd?

Some people mess around with me and say that, and I'm sure some people I don't talk to think so because I'm valedictorian, but the people I talk to know that I'm not. I'm just driven in a way that they're not driven. Most people think of me as fun and loving. DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Kayla has had to overcome a number of challenges, including a shoulder injury that ended her fledgling swimming career and the suicide of a close friend last October. She credits English teacher Rubi Diaz for helping her and other students cope with the death. Kayla's work with the Ophelia Project included a safety seminar for middle schools designed to curb the rise in abductions. The chapter also decorated jeans with inspiring and encouraging messages to promote self-esteem. Kayla is part of the fourth generation in her family to attend Northside Baptist Church in Ruskin. She sings in the choir and taught vacation Bible school last year. Kayla also has been named the Bright House Networks Youth Services winner, and on Thursday she received the Anne Frank Humanitarian Award from the Florida Holocaust Museum.

Lunch with Ernest is edited for brevity and clarity. Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa & State section. He can be reached at hooper@sptimes.com or 813 226-3406.

[Last modified May 4, 2007, 07:06:21]


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