Everyday Hero- Vicki Sokolik

A Tampa woman has taken dozens of homeless teens under her wing.

Without her help, many would be faced with a rough life on the streets.

Vicki Sokolik is no stranger to most Hillsborough County high schools.

“I call them my kids. People get confused all the time because I always say my kids.

Sokolik’s been like a mother to the 60 students getting help from her non-profit, Starting Right, Now.

Leto High School senior Sergio Velazquez is one of them.

He was on the brink of homelessness, when Sokolik came to his rescue.

“My father died when I was young. My mother never read books or cared about my education, he says.

Now, he’s getting ready for college.

Sokolik started the non-profit about three years ago.

It’s aimed at helping homeless youth gain independence and continue their education.

They also help teens and their families find housing, jobs and even learn the basics of banking.

“There are probably a lot of people out there that maybe the mom isn’t educated and can’t work the system and needs help doing that, and I was determined that I was going to be that person for these kids, Vicki says.

Giving back comes naturally to this everyday hero, a woman whose selflessness is changing lives.

Starting Right, Now is a referral only agency.

Categories: Featured

Holiday Hopes: HCC student strives to help younger siblings overcome tragedy

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Telling the story gets a little easier each time, but it is always painful.

He woke early that morning a year and a half ago to his sister’s screams and jumped from his bed. He can’t remember what month it was, just that he was about to take final exams for his junior year at Armwood High School.

In his front yard, hell was playing out. Torn clothes were strewn about and his stepfather, the man he called Dad, was lying on the driveway gasping for breath. His mother, holding a gun, was screaming nearby, “out of her mind drunk.”

Rico Davis hustled his 6-year-old sister and 12-year-old brother inside. He bent down over his dad to talk to him. Ervin Washington didn’t respond. Rico grabbed his mom and tried to talk to her but she was incoherent and didn’t respond. She tried to put the gun in her husband’s hand.

Soon, sheriff’s deputies arrived. His dad was dead and his mother went to jail.

He lost both parents in one night.

• • •

The next day, Rico went to school.

“I didn’t tell people, really. When I came to school, I just didn’t talk about it,” Rico said. “I knew I had to study.”

He and his siblings were split up for the first time. His brother and sister went into foster care. Rico had just turned 18 and stayed with a friend. He was in a fog of sadness.

He started his senior year and a friend told him about a program, Starting Right, Now, which helps homeless high school students graduate and get into college. He applied. Vicki Sokolik, the director, was struck by his story and his drive to succeed. He told her he wanted to get his diploma and be successful to help his siblings, and prove to them that they too could overcome this.

At the time, his brother called him every day after school, crying. “He hated everybody,” Rico said of his brother’s complaints. Rico told him, “Don’t be fighting. Don’t be bad.”

One of the first tasks in the program is to write an essay on how they became homeless. About five months had passed since that night, and it was raw.

“Just put the words down on paper,” Sokolik tells the teens. “We don’t care about grammar.”

Rico had partnered with Sokolik’s husband, Joel.

“It was like I had just woken from a bad dream.” Rico wrote. “My sister was screaming, Daddy got shot!”

Talking about it gets easier, Rico said recently. “But you know, people don’t really like to talk about it.”

He remembers his mother was drunk before he went to bed that night.

“She drank a lot and when she got drunk, she got angry at the world,” he said.

His stepfather had been a longtime coach with the Brandon Lions youth football team. He had coached Rico one year and worked hard to provide for the family.

“Everyone had respect for him,” Rico said. “He was always there for me.”

Washington had stayed away that night, knowing his wife was drunk and angry. The story Rico later heard is that his mother told her husband if he didn’t come home, she would kill the kids in their sleep.

Rico talked to his mother last week. She’s in the Falkenburg Road Jail, with a court hearing set for February. He knows she has lived a troubled life.

Ever since he was little, Rico wanted to take care of his mom, buy her a car and a house. But she’s facing a life sentence.

“If she gets life, it kills my dream,” he said. “I think about it all the time. I love my mom.”

• • •

Rico has worked through much of his emotions with grief counseling and classes at Starting Right, Now, in anger management and emotional intelligence courses and the Dale Carnegie Course.

He also helped his siblings get out of foster care. They now live near Hillsborough Avenue with their grandmother, Claudia Washington. Rico sees them often.

The program helped him get an apartment at Hawk’s Landing, next to Hillsborough Community College where takes classes. So far this semester, he has two A’s and a C.

Rico held that first essay recently, the one he wrote when he entered the program.

“That’s my essay?” he wondered. “It looks short.”

“You were in a fog when you wrote it,” Sokolik said.

Near the end, he had written: I have to succeed. I will be the person I want to be and I know I will accomplish things in my life.”

It earned him several scholarships totaling $60,000, which he plans to use to get a business degree from the University of South Florida.

Contact Elisabeth Parker at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Categories: Featured

A young migrant worker transforms to college student

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DOVER — The hands that once picked fruit in the fields surrounding this east Hillsborough community helped guide a baseball across the plate at the Tampa Bay Rays game Wednesday.

The hands that once shielded him from the wrath of an angry father accepted a diploma from Strawberry Crest High School last week, making him the first in his family to graduate.

The hands of Miguel Ventura hold the hopes of a brighter future, hopes that didn’t exist in his heart and mind even a year ago. Back then, he saw himself as just another kid from another migrant family, wanting little more than a place to sleep.

• • •

Miguel, 19, started picking berries at the age of 9 with other migrant workers.

By midday, they sweltered as they worked. Miguel would find a tadpole, follow it along a rivulet created from sprinklers, between blueberry rows and beside fields, until his father came after him with a stick.

“What are you doing?” Miguel remembers him yelling. “Work! Move your hands! You’re a man.”

His parents had crossed the border from Mexico illegally. His mother gave birth to Miguel and three other siblings in Florida. They followed the crops every year to South Carolina in the spring, Michigan in the summer and back to Florida in the fall and winter.

Miguel never remembers being in school for the last day. He missed end-of-year exams and fell behind in school. Strawberries were the worst, he said. After hours bent in two over plants, everyone ached. At home, Miguel would stretch out flat. He watched the men drink away their pain.

When his father drank, he became violent. Miguel hid with his sisters when his father struck his mother.

Sometimes his father targeted him.

Miguel was in eighth grade when his father saw him coloring flowers for a school project. He crumpled the picture into a ball and threw it at Miguel, telling him it was for girls. Miguel yelled and his father hit him.

When his mother intervened, his father turned on her, leaving Miguel to seethe and silently pray for peace at home.

Two weeks later, authorities detained his father in Dade City, where he picked blueberries. He was deported to Mexico. Miguel soon regretted his wish.

“I was full of hate,” he said. “I should never have wished for that.”

At 15, he became the backbone of the family.

• • •

Without a father, his mother moved Miguel, his two sisters and baby brother into a single room in a house in Dover, where 10 other people lived.

His mother put a mattress in one corner.

Miguel slept in the closet. His little mattress barely fit.

“It was not nice, but it allowed my mother to have more room,” he said.

After school and during breaks and summer, he picked berries to make rent and buy food. He was fast. He would seek out the fastest pickers and compete with them to fill the most plastic bins. He was glad to be able to help his mother.

But after dark, he started hanging out with the kids in the neighborhood. They smoked pot and made up raps, he said.

Some were in gangs. Halfway through ninth grade, Miguel was failing.

His mother, unable to speak English, decided to return to Mexico instead of continuing to struggle. She left Miguel with an uncle.

“You’re the one with the opportunity here,” she told him, repeatedly.

Miguel promised to make her proud.

• • •

He brought up his grades by the end of the year and continued to pick berries to help his uncle with bills. By the end of his junior year at Strawberry Crest, his GPA rose to 3.1.

But it had become hard to live as a guest in his uncle’s home. So he moved in with a man who rented rooms, and took the couch. Soon, he realized that he could not study through the parties in the house.

His migrant advocate at Strawberry Crest referred him to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit that serves unaccompanied teens — kids like Miguel who find themselves without a reasonable place to lay their head at night — by providing stability, life skills training and academic tutoring.

So far, it has helped 190 teens get into college, a vocational program or the military. Former members are in law school, graduate school or gainfully employed.

Founder and executive director Vicki Sokolik says it works because she’s on the ground with the kids. They text her until midnight and she answers, encouraging and expecting their success.

Miguel, who joined Starting Right, Now just for a bed, hoped to attend trade school, but Sokolik thought his hands could craft a different path.

She remembers Miguel coming into her office in the early months with doubts: “How do you know I can do this?”

He was from a migrant family, he told her again and again, as if his past predetermined his future.

Now, with a mentor who serves as a second mother and a wave of encouragement from the program, Miguel will attend Saint Leo University in the fall to study business.

On Fridays, he calls his mom in Mexico. She tells him she’s so proud.

“I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do,” she says.

“Honestly,” he said recently in the Starting, Right, Now office, “I can’t either.”

Contact Elisabeth Parker at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Categories: Featured

On a cold night four months ago, La’Quita Carter took a pillow from the trunk of her car, climbed into the back seat and wrapped herself in an old blanket.

A polar blast was sliding south, prompting sheet-draped outdoor foliage and the opening of Tampa’s shelters.

La’Quita was 18 that cold night and needed a few hours of sleep before school. She had parked outside an apartment building and, as usual, she was scared. She had nightmares of someone breaking in to her car to get her. She was scared to tell anyone she was homeless, scared of what might happen to her in the system.

La’Quita pondered her situation as she shivered and turned the engine on to warm up.

“Why is my life this way?”

In the morning, she would drive to school early enough to slip in to the teachers bathroom where there was a stall with a sink. She would style her hair and brush her teeth. After school she was on the track team she would take a shower in the girls locker room.

It was her senior year at Blake High School. La’Quita still had hope.

There are hundreds of homeless kids in the county’s schools, say those who work with them.

How does it happen?

La’Quita doesn’t remember ever living with her father, who she said has been in and out of jail throughout her life. Her mother was 15 when La’Quita was born and had to drop out of school. La’Quita went to several elementary schools in Tampa, and Madison and Monroe middle schools. In middle school, she started running track. She auditioned for the musical theater arts magnet at Blake High School and got in.

La’Quita liked school, where the rules were consistent and the subjects interesting. But things lacked structure at home and there was no peace between daughter and mother.

“We kept bumping heads,” La’Quita said.

The bumps got bad in her sophomore year. She didn’t want to go home after school.

La’Quita had to move out.

La’Quita stayed with a cousin and with a friend for a while. She worked about 20 hours a week at McDonald’s since she was 16. But after a manager cut her hours, she applied at AT&T. When an interviewer told her he didn’t think she would be a good fit, she was dismayed. But she came back and asked for another interview. She needed the job and would work hard, she said. Her persistence paid off.

She saved her money to make a down payment on a gray Ford Fusion. Everything she owned was in that car with her. The trunk held a bag of toiletries on the right side, clothes in the middle and bedding on the left.

She worked weekdays from 5 to 11 p.m.

In September, she started sleeping in her car. The bump between the back seats made her back ache. Some nights she was hungry. Once, a police officer tapped on her window while she slept outside an apartment building. She told him she was waiting for someone. He told her she had to leave.

She dreamed of going to college on a track scholarship, but was not sure how to make it happen. She hadn’t yet passed the FCAT. She didn’t know how to apply to colleges.

Some of the adults she knew questioned whether she would graduate. That hurt, La’Quita said.

“It felt like they already expected me to fail,” she said.

Keeping a secret can be lonely. La’Quita never hinted to classmates, even to closest friends, that she was homeless.

“Everyone just thought I had it all together,” she said.

She was born small and was followed by a sister the next year. That baby was too small. She had died. La’Quita often wonders what it would be like if she lived.

“What would she look like? Would she look better than me?” La’Quita wondered. “Would we be close? I don’t have anyone to be close with. If something happens to me, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’m scared to open up to people.”

For some reason on that cold morning, La’Quita told her secret to a social worker. The counselor steered her to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit that works with Hillsborough County high schools. Their goal is to eliminate the cycle of homelessness, by wrapping students in a grueling schedule of tutoring and classes in leadership, etiquette and motivation. Founder Vicki Sokolik serves as a super mom. She says she sees the physical change in the kids after a month in the program as they drop stress. Hope changes everything, Sokolik says.

La’Quita moved into the program’s transitional home, Haven Poe, a former runaway shelter off Bayshore Boulevard in March. She was accepted into Saint Leo University and plans to major in sports medicine or business.

La’Quita, now 19, passed the FCAT two weeks ago and went to prom last week. She is set to graduate June 6.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

After living in her car, student finds a home and hope 05/22/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014 10:21am]

2014 Tampa Bay Times

Hometown Hero: South Tampa dentist treats students who need care

BY ERIN KOURKOUNIS Tribune staff

Published: December 24, 2013 | Updated: December 24, 2013 at 08:17 PM
TAMPA Dequjuan Martin spent years with tooth pain, along with the headaches it caused and the trouble he had concentrating in school.

Martin, a 19-year-old Armwood High School senior who goes by Qujuan, couldnt remember the last time he had his teeth cleaned.

That all changed when he met Dr. Caitilin Martini, a South Tampa dentist, who gave him a root canal, installed crowns and fillings and cleaned his teeth for free.

Shes a great lady, said Martin, who has no parents or legal guardian. I used to be in pain.

Martini began doing free dental work for a dozen or more Hillsborough County students about two years ago. Thats when she got involved with Starting Right Now, an organization that offers support to students like Martin who need a boost getting through school.

They receive free medical and dental care, as well as a mentor, a place to live and help applying to colleges.

In addition to offering her services, Martini has rounded up a team of local specialists she calls on if a student needs something beyond her scope of work. They include a periodontist, an oral surgeon, a root canal specialist and an endodontist.

She bends over backwards, said Vicki Sokolik, Starting Right Now founder. Our kids do not have dental insurance. The majority have either never seen a dentist or have not in so long that theyre having all sorts of issues. A pretty significant amount of her time and resources have been used to help us.

Born and raised in South Tampa, Martini, 46, graduated from Academy of Holy Names then the University of Florida, where she attended dental school. She is now a partner at Muscaro and Martini Dentistry on Bay to Bay Boulevard.

She decided to get involved with Starting Right Now after attending the organizations annual luncheon with a friend. She had been working with a national organization called Give Back a Smile, which helps victims of domestic violence. But she wanted to use her work to help locals.

The stories she heard at the luncheon were eye-opening. She heard tales of students molested by father figures. One students family returned home one day to find they had been evicted.

Its unfortunate, she said. For most of the kids, its circumstances, not bad choices. Some of them have made some bad choices because of their circumstances and have not had anyone there to educate them or tell them a different way.

Martini said helping the students who remain her patients even after they graduate from high school is just her way of giving back to the community. Her office contributes up to $2,500 per month to the students dental needs.

She hopes to establish a lecture series on dental heath for the students in the future.

The easiest thing for me to do is give dentistry, she said. It makes me feel really good to be able to help these kids in a way that maybe they wouldnt be able to be helped. Weve made special bonds with all of the students who come in here. They are really good kids.

On Monday, Martin stopped by Martinis office to get his teeth cleaned. Afterward, she pulled up a chair and peered into his mouth while they talked about their Christmas plans.

Qujuan, everything is looking really good, she said.

Martini suggested that Martin think about taking better care of his teeth by cutting back on the Gatorade.

Martin appreciates that his dentist takes the time to teach him about oral health.

Every time I come in, he said, I learn new things.

ekourkounis@tampatrib.com

(813)259-7999

Twitter: @ErinKTBO

Categories: Featured

Once homeless, now home for the holidays

FOX 13 News

Terrell Jefferson, a student at Florida A&M University, unpacked for holiday break. He then went into the living room and started playing a board game. Everyone was gathered sharing the holiday spirit.

It could be any home, but Terrell’s home is special. It’s filled with other teens who share a common bond – they grew up homeless.

The state took the 19-year-old from his mother when he was a baby because of her terrible drug addiction.

“And, growing up, my father was in prison most of my life,” Jefferson said. “When I finally did meet my father, I was 18.”

A few months later, his father died of cancer, leaving Terrell homeless and couch-hopping with friends and relatives.

It’s Not Easy

A teacher suggested he apply for a program called Starting Right Now. He would either sink or swim.

“Because our program is hard,” said Vicki Sokolik, who founded the non-profit in 2008. “It’s not a free ride by any stretch of the imagination.”

Starting Right Now is home to 24 teenagers at a time. They have to attend school every day and sign a contract to work 20 hours a week in a job that’s assigned. They must clean their rooms and do their laundry. They are provided with a mentor, tutoring, room, and board.

Terrell flourished, graduated from high school, and received a full scholarship at FAMU, where he was a star on the soccer team last season.

The Kids and Their Kids

At the end of this school year, Starting Right Now will have helped 125 homeless teenagers. Not only do they get help to get through school, but in many cases, they find the family that they never had.

“These guys are like my brothers and sisters,” said Terrell, who will spend much of the holiday break here at the Starting Right Now home.

Vicki talks glowingly of “her kids.” Many are the first in their family to finish high school, and most are the first to go to college. Surprisingly, she said it’s not as much about them as it is about their children.

“When they have kids and their kids have kids, they’re not going to be on welfare, not on food stamps, not on Medicaid,” she said. “That’s when you’re going to see the societal benefit from this organization.”

Where to Now?

Starting Right Now’s success with getting homeless kids into college has yielded a good problem to have. The students they’ve moved onto campuses would like to “come home” for the holidays, but space is tight.

Terrell is squeezed into an empty room, but others are put up at hotels. The Starting Right Now home is a former county runaway shelter, and there’s room to expand. Vickie has started fundraising to turn an unused part of the second floor into a “Home for the Holiday” area for returning students like Terrell.

Changing Everything

I asked Terrell where he might have ended up had it not been for Starting Right Now.

“I would have ended up in jail or dead,” he said. Now, he’s loving college and playing sports at FAMU. He plans to become a nurse, or even a doctor.

“Once I got to college, that’s when it all hit me,” he said. “You can really do what you want to do with your life.”

For more information, visit www.startingrightnow.org

Categories: Featured

Starting Right, Now secures a home for young people near Bayshore

Vicki Sokolik hovered between unyielding gratitude and sheer joy Wednesday.

Sokolik, the executive director of Starting Right, Now, spent Wednesday officially assuming control of the old Haven Poe Runaway Shelter near Bayshore Boulevard. Under Starting Right, Now’s watchful eye, the Tampa shelter will serve as an apartment complex for the unaccompanied youths her upstart nonprofit organization serves.

The students, who will soon call the complex home, will no longer live alone in apartments after being abandoned by their parents. Starting Right, Now’s teens � good kids who through no fault of their own end up without a stable place to live � embark on a path of success by going through a holistic process that focuses not only on improving schoolwork but growing as a person… Full Store Here

Categories: Featured

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