Holiday Hopes: Plant High student made it this far alone, wants just one thing for college

TAMPA — She heard it from the other room, at first thinking her brother was laughing, then knowing he was crying, harder than she’d ever heard before. He only had to say one word — “Mom” — and Catie Purnell knew that her mother was gone. Her knees got weak. She sat on the edge of her bed. Catie did not know how to feel, even though she had known this day was coming for as long as she could remember.

As a toddler, she tripped over empty liquor bottles, one parent out drinking while another passed out on the couch. Her mom and dad screamed at each other in their Georgia home while Catie and her older brother, Tyler, learned to cook dinner and do laundry for themselves.

At school, Catie did not have to be the adult. She loved playing on the soccer team, and in orchestra class, she picked up the violin. Her grades were something she could control.

She had known she wanted to go to college since kindergarten. It seemed like every opportunity lived there. But her mother moved in with a boyfriend, and her father spent all their money on alcohol, so they had to leave home. First it was New Orleans, then here to Tampa. With each school, she had to readjust to the curriculum. But Catie made herself keep up.

Starting the ninth grade at Plant High School, Catie and Tyler took turns locking their father in his bedroom, trying to keep him from finding another bottle. But he always did, and Catie had to quit soccer and violin to take care of him as soon as the afternoon bell rang.

Things looked like they were finally going to get better, just as Catie began her sophomore year. Her father went to rehab for a month, the longest he ever had, and came back sober. The next week, her mother died. It wasn’t long until her father relapsed, Tyler pounding him on his chest while Catie dialed 9-1-1.

He woke up and they kept moving, from apartment to motel, always behind in rent. It wasn’t easy for Catie to get to school. She would scrounge for change for the city bus, or walk, sometimes more than an hour to Plant.

At the end of her sophomore year, she was studying for Advanced Placement and final exams in the lobby of a cheap motel. She shared one room with her father, her brother, their two dogs and a cat for two months. Catie wished she had her own computer as she typed out papers in the lobby lounge; but she told herself she was lucky to have a place to sleep.

Then last summer, Catie became homeless. She applied to Starting Right, Now, a program that houses, tutors and mentors homeless students. Her brother had been admitted the year before.

Now Catie, 17, doesn’t worry about how she’ll get to school in the morning. She lives at Starting Right, Now’s South Tampa facility and takes the bus. As a senior at Plant, she has passed all of the AP exams she’s taken and keeps a 4.5 grade-point average. She applied to eight colleges, and has already been accepted to the University of North Florida and Colorado State University.

The one thing she wants for the holidays is a laptop for college. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should have a good processor and enough memory for her to use it for four years. If she could have a printer, too, that would go a long way. It was always so hard to print her papers.

Catie can’t wait to meet people like her, who are passionate about learning. She is in the marine science club at Plant. In college, she’ll study conservation biology, and then, hopefully, environmental law. She wants to protect marine life and other animals.

This year, everyone at Starting Right, Now picked a word to work on. Catie chose “voice.” She wants to be heard. She knows she’ll never drink.

In September, she got a phone call from her father’s friend. Her dad had passed away, too. Catie started to think about when she was very young, in north Georgia. It wasn’t all bad, she says. She loved to go outside. She remembers walking in the woods behind their house with her dog and her dad.

But no, she corrects herself. Her dad wasn’t there. It was just her.

Contact enterprise editor Alexandra Zayas at 727-893-8413 or
Categories: Featured, In the News

Nonprofit group to aid homeless

Printed from the Tampa Tribune.


Vicki and Joel Sokolik say they have found a way to help end homelessness, and some top local political and business leaders believe the approach has merit.

“With the homeless numbers increasing, ‘Starting Right, Now’ will complement existing programs, such as Metropolitan Ministries,” said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. “With its … one-on-one approach, Starting Right, Now will be able to provide close oversight and support to the family.”

The nonprofit group envisioned by the Sokoliks would help homeless families find stability by, among other things, helping parents get jobs and ensuring children remain in school, said executive director Vicki Sokolik, who has re-established families on her own.

The goal is to end the perpetual cycle of homelessness. “I don’t want just a Band-Aid,” she said. “I want to change a life.”

With a board of directors including Iorio, Superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools MaryEllen Elia and Tampa Bay Rays President Matthew Silverman, the first step is to find housing and employment.

In May, 10 mentor families or single adults will be paired with 10 homeless families, each of which will have at least one high-school age child. This first group of 10 pairings will form in September. The foundation hopes to each year double the number of families participating in the program.

Funded by grants and private donations, Starting Right, Now’s goal is overcome the generational cycle of homelessness by ensuring children have opportunities and incentives to continue their education.

“These families have to be willing to change,” Sokolik said. “We are teaching them to help themselves.”

Mentors are prohibited from giving money to the homeless families.

“Mentoring is important,” said Tim Marks, chief operating officer of Metropolitan Ministries, which has a family program called H.O.M.E.S., or Housing Offering Mentoring, Education and Support. “Many of our families end up homeless because they have no support network.”

Ken Gaughan, supervisor of social work services for Hillsborough schools, said as of mid-April the county had almost 2,000 students classified as being homeless.

Gaughan said the number is growing and likely will reach 2,300 by June. That’s a 5 percent increase over the number of students served last year.

“There is no doubt that Starting Right, Now is needed,” Gaughan said.

Mentors are recruited by referral. They receive training, commit to participate for at least 18 months, and agree to submit monthly evaluations. The homeless participants are screened through the Homeless Education and Literacy Project, a division of the school district.

“It’s a big commitment, but definitely life-changing,” Sokolik said.

Vicki Sokolik, who has a background in public relations, and Joel Sokolik, a neuroradiologist, have mentored teens including a classmate of their son, Cameron, who was in the International Baccalaureate program at King High School. The classmate was living on friends’ couches after moving out of her mother’s home.

Cameron asked his parents if they could help her out. One year later the classmate is attending college at Central Texas University, studying for a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on accounting.

“These kids are extremely resilient,” Sokolik said, “and with a little push, they can rebound.”

Categories: Featured

Former Harris TIPS School in St. Pete to house homeless teens


The former Harris TIPS Drop-Out Prevention School on Haines Road in St. Petersburg will soon become a home to teens who have nowhere else to go at the end of the school day.

An old St. Petersburg school building is about to get a new life as a home for homeless teens.

For many, the first impression of the former Harris TIPS Dropout Prevention School at 4600 Haines Road is that it’s outdated. The building is covered in vines and chained with locks.

But homeless teens in the Bay area see the potential in the school as a place to call home.

“I don’t really think anyone understands how many kids are struggling in high school because they don’t have a place to go at the end of the day,” homeless teen Melanie DeCampos said.

DeCampos is one of more than 6,000 homeless, unaccompanied youth in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. The non-profit “Starting Right, Now” wants to turn the old St. Petersburg facility into a mini-campus for those teenagers, such DeCampos, who are in need of a place to stay.

“These are not bad kids,” said founder Vicki Sokolik. “They’re kids who were dealt bad hands.”

The mini-campus will include separate boys and girls dorms, a training center and computer labs so students can successfully complete their studies.

“I feel like there’s a huge necessity to have something like this, where kids can finish high school and have a place to go at the end of the day and not worry about if they’re going to eat tonight, tomorrow or even the end of the week, ” DeCampos said.

“When you know where you’re going to sleep and eat every night, all of a sudden you can think,” Sokolik said.

The program has a 100 percent graduation rate for seniors who’ve been through their process.

The organization hopes to have the mini-campus up and running by the first of the year. They’ll have to wait until after a number of public hearings before work can begin.

For more information on Starting Right, Now visit

Categories: Featured

Hillsborough county graduate rises from abuse, poverty

TAMPA (FOX 13) – It’s graduation season. Thousands of local students are making the leap from high school to college.

But for homeless students, it’s a benchmark that at one time seemed unreachable.

Kelsey Mitchell graduated Monday from Tampa’s Robinson High School. If you asked her a year ago if she thought she’d see this day, she might not be so sure. Now, her future is not only clear, it’s also bright.

“Oh, relief. It’s over,” Mitchell said, describing her feelings on graduation day.  “I went through hell and back. I went through 13 schools, 5 high schools, and didn’t think I was going to make it, but I did.”

Kelsey is also a poet. Her words come from some of the darkest times of her young life.

“My book is no longer a tragedy,” she reads.  “I think I will call it tenacity, looked into the mirror and finally saw what they all see. I said hello to the beautiful me.”

She had a sexually abusive stepfather. After escaping that, her mother couldn’t afford electricity, food or rent.

“I remember one night, white rice and tomato paste was what was for dinner. Whatever was in the pantry,” Mitchell said.

“In the middle of summer, we had no electricity and it was so hot that the thermostat went all the way to 95 degrees. We would have to wet our clothes in the shower and just stay in there to be cool.”

Mom eventually moved to live with a friend in Arizona. Kelsey stayed in Tampa.

She’d already been to 17 different schools. Still, she tried #18: Robinson High School, enrolling as an unaccompanied youth.

“I got a job at Wendy’s. I was working until 2 in the morning,” Mitchell said. “And I was getting up at 5:00 a.m., still going to school.”

A counselor got wind of her plight, directing her to “Starting Right, Now,”  a Hillsborough County non-profit helping homeless students graduate.

“There are 3,200 homeless youth or students in the county right this second,” said founder Vicki Sokolik. “We are ending the generational cycle of poverty, which is very exciting.”

They gave Kelsey a safe place to live, rides to school, mentoring, food stamps and Medicaid. She went from 50 absences her junior year to only 5 her senior year.

“They take care of everything, so all we have to do is get up in the morning and go to school and do scholarships,” Mitchell said.

She earned plenty. “The biggest one was Horatio Alger,” Mitchell said. “It’s a national scholarship. It’s $22,000.”
This 18-year-old propelled herself from a state of hopelessness all the way to Florida State University.

“I am stronger than you ever thought possible,” Mitchell recited in her poetry. “I can guarantee you one thing. This world was meant for me to change.”

Kelsey is double majoring in English and Business Marketing.

Next year, even more students like Kelsey will become success stories. “Starting Right, Now” is expanding its Hillsborough County house from 24 to 40 students. And they’re opening a new 50-student facility in Pinellas County.

Categories: Featured

Homeless kids to gain home, education

— Homeless students in Pinellas County public schools could get a place to call home and a ticket to college as early as January.

Starting Right Now, a Hillsborough County nonprofit organization, has settled on the school district’s vacant Harris TIPS building, 4600 Haines Road, St. Petersburg, to launch the Pinellas wing of its comprehensive homeless youth program.

The homeless teens who have participated in Starting Right Now in Tampa have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, said Lori Matway, Pinellas associate superintendent of student and community support. Students in 10th and 11th grades go through an extensive interview process before being accepted into the program, but once they do they “become part of their family,” Matway said at a school board discussion Tuesday.

Starting Right Now staff members stay throughout their students’ high school and college years. The program pays for everything from dental and medical care to clothing and transportation, as well as college costs. Even students enrolled in college get funding for expenses such as housing, food, clothing, supplies and tuition. Funding for each student comes from local business groups.

“They’re very particular with the students they select. They go through a two-hour long interview process … but they know what to look for in students,” Matway said. “It may not necessarily be the ones that have been the most successful. It’s that resilience factor that they look for. They have taken students that no one else would take — with criminal records and attendance issues — and it’s amazing where they are now.”

Because of the extensive support the students receive, space in the program’s housing is limited. At maximum capacity, the Pinellas program could accommodate 30 males and 30 females in separate dormitory facilities at Harris TIPS, a school for teen parents that closed in 2011. The school will be converted to a dormitory with a living room, dining room and bedrooms, said Michael Bessette, Pinellas associate superintendent of operational services. Two wings of the building had been remodeled for preschool.

With more than 3,000 documented homeless students in Pinellas County, the program fills a huge and growing need. In comparison, in 2007-08, there were 962, according to the school district.

The district’s Homeless Education Assistance Team has culled a list of students to be interviewed for the program, Matway said.

When students are identified as homeless or “couch hoppers” — going from home to home and friend to friend — teachers and guidance counselors can refer them to see if they would be a candidate for the program, Matway said.

The exceptionally successful program was started in Hillsborough seven years ago by Vicki Sokolik and Tampa Bay Rays President Matt Silverman. At least 100 students have been referred to Starting Right Now by the Hillsborough school district, and about 40 to 50 are pursuing a higher education.

Each student is paired with a mentor who contacts the student daily, following them through high school, into college and beyond. When the program’s college students get a break from classes, and as their friends head home for vacation, many return to the Starting Right Now house to spend time with their surrogate families.

“It’s our mentor program on steroids,” Matway said. “It becomes their home.”

School district officials are finalizing a contract with Starting Right Now, and then must start the extensive process of rezoning, which includes four or five public hearings, before the old school building can house students.

Starting Right Now must form a new governing board for Pinellas County; its first meeting is Aug. 26. Board members so far include Pinellas schools Superintendent Michael Grego; Silverman; Jim Myers, former chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation; and Jabil’s vice president of human resources, Phil Hubbell.

“We’re pulling together some really powerful men and women to support this cause, and it will be our Starting Right Now, not Hillsborough’s Starting Right Now,” Matway said.

Starting Right Now will fund the renovations for Harris TIPS, but the building will belong to the school board and may be used however the board deems fit if the program ends. Improvements must meet the school district’s criteria, but the project has no cost to the district, Grego said.

“I would have never guessed this would be the cause or reason for us holding onto this building, but when I first walked through with Vicki (Sokolik) it was like it was made for this,” Grego said. “It has two wings, two kitchens. This is going to really help our students.”

About $816,000 in grants and contributions were made to Starting Right Now in 2012. Many students who complete the program and become successful adults end up making donations to the group, Grego said.

In Hillsborough, the program houses about 22 students in a remodeled home on Bayshore Boulevard.

There is extensive work to be done at Harris TIPS, but the program has found great support countywide, Grego said.

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

Categories: Featured

Starting Right, Now Receives Humana Grant

A local charity has been named the proud recipient of a giant donation in the form of a grant from a national company.

According to a September 16 press release, the Tampa Palms-based charity Starting Right, Now (SRN — a nonprofit that works to eliminate homelessness among Tampa Bay-area youth), received this year’s Humana Communities Benefit charitable grant, a $350,000 donation from the Humana Foundation, the fifth year the company has made such donations.

SRN provides homeless teenagers with resources to get themselves on their own two feet, offering programs that include mentoring, employment and a stable home, as well as education in self-sufficiency and financial literacy. 

The press release states that SRN will use the money to help expand its housing facility for runaway children in Carrollwood, called Haven Poe. The donation is expected to help the facility be able to double the number of kids it currently can house. The release says that the organization also plans to restore a school in Pinellas County that will be used for dormitories, offices and a training center. Some of the money also will be used to purchase a vehicle to help get teens to medical appointments and mentorship programs.

“We’re confident that this $350,000 Humana Communities Grant will help us take a giant leap towards our goal of ending homelessness in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties,” said SRN founder and longtime New Tampa resident Vicki Sokolik in the release. “This generous funding will allow us to transform the lives of more than three times the number of teens we mentor each year and help us identify if this is a program we can implement outside of the Tampa Bay area.”

As we reported two issues ago, to win the grant, SRN had to collect online votes at the Humana Foundation’s website. SRN was up against two other Bay-area nonprofits — the Pinellas Education Foundation and Sunrise of Pasco, which provides violence intervention services. In addition to earning votes, SRN also had to make a formal presentation to a panel of judges made up of community leaders from around Tampa Bay.

SRN will receive the money in three installments over the next three years.

“By expanding their housing facilities, (SRN) will ensure that more homeless teenagers are provided with the fundamentals needed to focus on their personal development instead of survival,” said Humana’s Central & North Florida Vice President Al Hernandez. “Humana is pleased to support such a sustainable program, as we know this funding will help area youth maintain stable and healthy lives for years to come.”

For more info, please visit Starting

Categories: Featured

New Tampa mom, others win “local heroes” award from Bank of America

Could she pay for elementary school classmates who couldn’t afford field trips?

Could she mentor a high school student whose family’s hardships might force her to drop out?

In those cases and more, his mother obliged. Now his way of saying “thank you” rings with the same sense of volunteerism: Cameron nominated his mom for a $5,000 service award.

Which she won.

“I have set up more beds in strangers’ apartments,” Cameron, now 20, wrote in the application, “traveled to more unfamiliar places to deliver dinner and have been reminded of how fortunate — and frankly spoiled — I am, more times than I can remember, all because of my mother.”

Sokolik was recognized as a “local hero” by Bank of America last week, collecting a $5,000 prize to donate back to her organization, Starting Right, Now. The nonprofit supports homeless families with high school students by providing mentors who help find housing and jobs. The goal, Sokolik said, is to help students attain the highest level of education to prevent homelessness in the future. Sokolik, 49, of New Tampa, serves as founder and executive director.

Bank of America’s “Neighborhood Excellence Initiative” honored 10 leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties with the grant this year. Ten high school students received paid internships over the summer and leadership training in Washington, D.C. Four organizations landed $200,000 each for serving their neighborhoods.

“They represent everything that truly is good about our community,” said Bill Goede, market president for Bank of America in Tampa Bay.

This is the seventh year the neighborhood awards have been given in Hillsborough County, and the sixth year in Pinellas County.

The Academy Awards-style ceremony for the Hillsborough winners brought more than 100 people to the Tampa Theatre last week. With cheers rising from the crowd, award recipients stepped out of black limos onto a red carpet and claimed miniature gold Oscars on stage with emotional acceptance speeches.

Sokolik devoted hers to her son, her source of inspiration.

“I learned from him,” she said about Cameron, who did not attend the ceremony. A junior at Stanford University, he is studying abroad in China.

Cameron studies psychology, although he’s still unsure about his future career. One thing is clear, though — he’ll be following in his mother’s footsteps.

“My gut tells me he’ll do something to change humanity,” Sokolik said.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at or (813) 661-2443.

Categories: Featured

Homeless have haven in her heart

TAMPA – Vicki Sokolik remembers breaking the one rule she was told eight years ago while giving Christmas presents to homeless kids: Don’t contact them later.

“I ended up giving presents to one young woman who I could not understand why she was homeless,” Sokolik recalls. She was smart and tough. “But it was clear she had been badly beaten, and when I came home, I could not get her out of my head.”

Sokolik broke the rules and took the woman to lunch, learning that she just couldn’t get a security deposit together for a new apartment away from her abuser. “I told my husband we just have to help her.” They arranged for an apartment near Busch Gardens, helped her open a checking account to avoid check-cashing stores, “and we really just entered her family.”

When the next Christmas came along, the woman was back on her feet and thriving. She told Sokolik, “Please, you go help some other family.”

That began Sokolik’s project, called Starting Right Now, which works with Hillsborough County schools. “We focused on families with high school students who we feel could be propelled to get a good education and stop the cycle of homelessness,” Sokolik said.

Her group now matches volunteer mentors with a family in a personal, direct relationship. So far, it’s working. The program has more than 50 students now, and has helped scores more go from nearly dropping out to receiving full college scholarships at the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and other schools.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Tampa Bay Rays President Matthew Silverman and other local heavyweights serve on her board of directors, and companies such as Sweetbay donate provisions regularly.

There are rules, though. The group focuses on the accidentally homeless, such as families who were paying rent but were kicked out because a landlord wasn’t paying the mortgage on the property. Clients must want to help themselves. Clients can’t spend any money without the mentor’s oversight.

Mentors must sign an 18-month commitment contract; help with homework, college applications and GED work; and be ready to persevere through failure after failure and become a de facto guardian angel for kids and families. “I tell mentors you can’t be just one more person who let them down,” Sokolik said.

And the project is working, with a 100 percent success rate at keeping the young people in school or getting them to college or a good job. They will mentor 15 families this year. So far, Sokolik has run the project from her kitchen table, though they’re moving into donated office space soon and will try doubling the size of the project in years ahead.

“The Sokoliks are doing all of this below the radar screen,” said Deidre and Skipper Peek, who joined the project as mentors. The Sokoliks are setting an example “for so many others, and the many people they have started on a path to a success in life.”

For more information, see

Categories: Featured


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