First place winner of the 2012 Ad 2 National Public Service Competition

American Advertising Federation named Ad 2 Tampa Bay first place winner of the 2012 Ad 2 National Public Service Competition    

Tampa, FL (June 07, 2012) – Ad 2 Tampa Bay, the unified voice of Tampa Bay’s emerging advertising professionals, is proud to announce that it has been named the first-place winner in the 2012 Ad 2 National Public Service Competition. The organization accepted the award at the American Advertising Federation’s (AAF) annual national conference, known as Admerica, last week in recognition of its 2011-2012 Public Service campaign created for Starting Right, Now (SRN).

“Working on this campaign has been an incredibly rewarding experience; I’m honored to have had the opportunity to make a real difference in the community and to work with such passionate individuals as Vicki Sokolik [Founder and Executive Director of Starting Right, Now], the SRN staff, volunteers, mentors, and Board,” said Kris Solberg, Public Service Account Director.

“We had an amazing team of industry professionals and students who stepped forward to help us make our mission a reality – to create an impactful campaign that would raise awareness of Tampa Bay’s youth homeless population, the dedicated work of SRN to put an end to it, and what the community can do to help,” added Danielle Torres, Public Service Creative Director. “This campaign would not have been possible without their help.”

For more than 40 years, local Ad 2 chapters have produced comprehensive public service advertising and marketing campaigns for non-profit organizations in their communities. Each year, Ad 2 chapters from across the nation compete in the Ad 2 Public Service Advertising Competition. Participating clubs submit a written report about their campaign, followed by an oral presentation at Admerica, AAF’s National Conference. A select panel of judges evaluates the campaigns and selects the best among that year’s work. The winning Ad 2 chapter receives an $800 award from the G.D. Crain Foundation and the opportunity to present their campaign to all attendees at the AAF National Conference. The campaign must support a local, regional or national public service project in the public interest or designed for community betterment.

“We knew that this was a great campaign by the tremendous impact it was having on our organization,” said Vicki Sokolik, Founder and Executive Director of SRN. “The community support we received as a result of the campaign was amazing,” she added. “It empowered our mentors and students, and even led to funders calling us asking how to get involved. We are so grateful to Ad 2 for helping us grow our agency.”

Interested in becoming the next Ad 2 Tampa Bay Public Service client? Our team will begin accepting applications this month. Contact for more information.

About Ad 2 Tampa Bay
Ad 2 Tampa Bay is the unified voice of Tampa Bay’s emerging advertising professionals. By combining the Tampa Bay area’s brightest developing talent while working in conjunction with the American Advertising Federation’s national network of over 50,000 members, Ad 2 Tampa Bay seeks to raise the profile and prestige of the local advertising industry through education, legislation, and public service. For more information, please visit

About Starting Right, Now
Starting Right, Now (SRN) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based in Tampa, Florida dedicated to ending the cycle of homelessness for the younger generation in Hillsborough County through continued education and an active mentor relationship. SRN stands apart from other organizations with similar missions in that it gets members of the community involved as mentors, empowering the students enrolled in the program to stand on their own two feet, and providing them with the initiative they need to be gainfully employed and housed. Learn more at

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Categories: Featured

After breaking from his family, a Tampa high school student makes it to graduation

He knew it would happen, but not like this. Minutes earlier, he had been in French class. Now he was living the moment that would define his future. It was April 2010. Sergio Velazquez stood in the hallway at Leto High School and faced his stepdad, who was there to pull him out of school just weeks before the end of his junior year. Sergio’s family had moved more than a dozen times — New York to Florida, back to New York, back to Florida, home to home to home. It was like his mother was searching for something, but he didn’t know what.

Now, back to New York? Sergio pictured himself repeating junior year at 19, graduating at 20, if at all.

“Why so sad?” he remembers his stepdad asking. “You knew this was going to happen.”

Obediently, Sergio began to walk, following orders to get his papers signed. Then his throat tightened. His feet stopped.

And he spoke in a way he never had: “I’m not dropping out.”

Sergio walked away.

He turned the corner.

And he ran.

• • •

This is an American story.

It starts with a declaration of independence. It ends with a victory. It rests on the idea that freedom brings possibility.

Even when you’re 18, and scared. Even when you have no idea what awaits at the end of the hallway.

“I’ll sleep on a park bench,” Sergio announced, after he raced to school administrators. “I’m not going back to that house.”

The kid was frantic. He had no clothes, nowhere to go.

• • •

Weeks earlier, Sergio had begun talking to adults about moving out on his own. A school social worker had put him in touch with a nonprofit that helps unaccompanied teens get apartments and jobs, manage their money and graduate. Its name: Starting Right, Now.

The two women in charge hadn’t been sure about the tall, slouching kid whose eyes were fixed to the floor. Would anger problems get in the way?

Still, the women had invited him to a park beautification event one Saturday. They had been impressed when he showed up early, paintbrush in hand. He had walked six miles to get there.

Now the program’s founder, Vicki Sokolik, was there for him. A couple of hours after the hallway face-off with his stepdad, Sergio saw her stretch out her arms, and he sank into her embrace.

“This,” she told him, “is your new beginning.”

• • •

The next hours felt surreal.

Sergio found himself wandering the aisles of a Walmart with a suburban mother of seven. They had met at the park cleanup. Now, she was insisting he pick out underwear.

“My kids wear long pajama bottoms,” Deidre Peek told him. “What do you like to wear to school?”

She was his program-assigned mentor, and today, emergency mom. While his mind swirled with the chaos of the afternoon, she planned the next few days — outfits for school, a cell phone, snacks to keep in a hotel fridge.

Sergio told her he had an ROTC awards ceremony that night. She drove him. He won a medal for outstanding cadet, and she sat by his side. He told her it was the first time he’d had someone in the audience.

At the end of the night, Deidre took him to his new temporary home, the La Quinta Inn.

Sergio took in his surroundings, far more plush than he was used to — flat screen TV, gym, pool. Hell yeah.

Soon Deidre left, and Sergio was alone.

Oh my God, he told himself.

What did I just do?

• • •

Sergio opened his eyes.

He’d closed them maybe three hours earlier. Now, sunlight poured into his room.

This is real, he thought.

And he began to cry.

That day at school, he didn’t tell his friends — what would he say? He felt alone, like no one would get it, and in class, it all overwhelmed him.

But that night, he felt a special energy. It was the Leto talent show, and he took the stage to perform a rap he’d written. With the throb of the bass drum, Sergio emerged, breathed deep and began:

Kid memories I have prayed/ For the attention you never gave

Always sleeping in your grave

Now I’m lost in this cave…

The cymbals crashed.

The crowd screamed.

Sergio sucked it all in.

His feet lifted off the floor as he commanded them to jump.

• • •

The days ahead were tough.

He lost it in French class after a teacher assigned students to write about their families.

He failed his finals.

He heard from his mother, then cut off communication because it made him sad.

He talked to a psychologist who told him to separate the things he could control from the things he could not.

Starting Right, Now got him an apartment where he lived on his own. His end of the deal was to get a job to help with the rent, do community service and make good grades.

Some days — doing extra schoolwork, riding his bike to a job at the Sweetbay fish counter, returning to an empty home — it would all feel so hard.

But he managed.

• • •

Friday was graduation day.

Deidre drove Sergio to Vicki Sokolik’s Tampa Palms home, where they took photos of him in his cap and gown.

Sergio wore a button-up dress shirt, pressed black slacks. Deidre swept his leg with a lint brush. She had been there for him at every important moment of the last year: Thanksgiving. Christmas. His 19th birthday.

At graduation, the women got seats as close to the stage as they could. Sergio got in line. He was stressing.

His mother had moved back to Tampa, and they’d started talking, about once a month. He’d seen her twice. She told him she planned to go to the graduation. But now, he wasn’t sure she would show.

The music started. The line of students began its procession. Sergio stood toward the end.

Then, he saw her.

She cradled his face in her hands and whispered in his ear:

“You did it without me.”

• • •

“Sergio Velazquez.”

He held in tears as he crossed the stage. Cheers erupted from the auditorium.

Sergio’s mother, Viviane Ramos, said she was sad this past year, too. She said she would have helped him graduate if he had joined the family in New York. But on Friday, she said, she felt proud.

From New York, Sergio’s 22-year-old brother, Pedro Perez, also recognized the accomplishment. Pedro dropped out of high school, he said, to help his family pay the bills and take care of his siblings.

“My little bro is doing something really good for himself,” Pedro said.

“It was getting tougher for us. Me and Sergio didn’t understand the path my mother chose, and sometimes, when you have to get out, you have to get out . . .

“I was letting him know, ‘Take care of yourself. Go to school, bro. Make a life for yourself, if you can.’

“He listened.”

• • •

Sergio wants a college degree. Then, a job as a military officer. Then, a career in politics. He wants to have retired twice by age 53.

The big goals felt more real once he learned his next step. He found out this spring, in a moment that mirrored that fateful one last year.

He was pulled out of class.

He walked into his assistant principal’s office.

And there, again, sat Vicki.

And Deidre. Smiling.

He’d gotten into Saint Leo University, he learned. It had been his No. 1 choice, but his grade-point average was borderline, and tuition was high. But he had told his story in an essay. These were some of his words:

If, in fact, creative people state that taking risks often promotes important discoveries in their lives or their work, then I must be an undiscovered artist . . . I am determined to face the world with nothing to fuel me but my goals.

He got a full scholarship.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at or (813) 226-3354.

Categories: Featured

Positively Tampa Bay

Starting Right, Now was featured on the ABC Action News “Positively Tampa Bay” program

Categories: Featured

Vicki Sokolik awarded Community Hero Award

SRN Founder Vicki Sokolik honored as “Community Hero” by Tampa Bay Lightning. Foundation donates $50,000 to help end the cycle of homelessness.

TAMPA BAY – The Tampa Bay Lightning recognized Vicki Sokolik as a Lightning Community Hero during the first period of tonight’s game against the Winnipeg Jets. Sokolik, who received a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program, will contribute the money to her charity of choice, Starting Right, Now.

As founder and Executive Director of Starting Right, Now, Sokolik has helped stop the cycle of homelessness by reestablishing a stable home environment and improving parental employment for individuals within the community. In addition, the initiative seeks to provide opportunities for the younger generation through continued education and fostering active mentor relationships. The strength of the program lies in that its efforts do not provide just a temporary fix, but instead a permanent solution in removing individuals from incredibly meager standings and placing them in a world with endless possibilities and real potential.

In 2001, after her daughter underwent brain surgery to treat epilepsy, Sokolik discovered the significant impact close support systems have in overcoming hardships. The experience, while difficult, revealed the value of what caring can do for others. Since then, Sokolik has been instrumental in establishing philanthropic causes throughout the Bay Area, as well as providing aid for those in need. With the encouragement of former City of Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Sokolik established Starting Right, Now in 2008 as an active way to reach out to the less fortunate. To date, the program has touched the lives of hundreds of beneficiaries who now have hope for a better tomorrow…. See the entire story here:

Categories: Featured

Student Story – Randall Drayton

Once angry and aimless, teen gets a boost to graduate from Armwood, head to college

By Joey Knight, Times Staff Writer

On an overcast Tuesday morning, Randall Drayton pulled a blue graduation gown over his thick torso. • Anger, the seemingly interminable accessory he had worn on his sleeve for so many years, was absent. • On this day, the brawny Hawks three-sport athlete would participate in the commencement ceremony of the eighth and final school he had attended since sixth grade. Before finding square meals on a daily basis, Drayton was a vagabond, accompanied only by hostility.

As his massive body filled out, so did the legend of his rage. A teacher’s sternness, or even an accidental bump in a school hallway, could set him off.

“I would get mad just like that,” he said. “If you did anything to get me mad, your best bet was to just get out of my way.”

On Tuesday, they converged on him instead: his mom and grandmother, the advocate who led him to the right track and the maternal mentor who helped keep him on it.

Smiles replaced scowls. Tussles were supplanted by a tassel.

Sixteen months after being handed a new lease on life, 19-year-old Randall Ra’shad Drayton was handed a diploma.

“We all saw a difference,” Armwood football coach Sean Callahan said.

• • •

Of the 16 graduating Armwood seniors who will play football in college, Drayton once seemed the least likely. Physically, he was a mountain (6-4, 290 pounds). Emotionally, he was Mount St. Helens.

“If he didn’t know you or have a rapport with you and you really pushed his buttons,” Callahan said, “you were going to see a side of a kid that was really rough.”

His record, which included two assault-related arrests, reflected that reality.

It hadn’t always been that way.

As a sixth-grader, Drayton moved from Brunswick, Ga., with his mother, younger brother and stepfather and enrolled at Liberty Middle School in Tampa Palms. When the family moved and he transferred to Buchanan Middle School in north Tampa, a pattern of violence and turmoil commenced.

“It wasn’t really good,” said Drayton, whose biological father never has figured prominently in his life. “I was hanging with the wrong people. We started like, our own little crew in school, getting in big fights for no reason.”

The tipping point occurred when he wrote Die All on a progress report, which he says was a lame attempt at being funny. When a teacher found it, he was expelled and sent to North Tampa Alternative School.

With that, Drayton’s perilous odyssey — mischief and malevolence, skirmishes and school hopping — was in full flight. He says that when he approached a teacher in a threatening manner at North Tampa Alternative School, he was moved to Meacham Alternative School.

By the end of ninth grade, he had attended three middle schools, three alternative schools and one high school. Meanwhile, his mother, Rashetta Davis, was growing more entangled in legal and financial woes, forcing the family to go from one bleak living arrangement to another.

Shoddy trailer parks, seedy apartments, hotel rooms — Drayton says he experienced them all. While living in Suitcase City, a historically crime-heavy community on the fringe of USF, he and some buddies heard gunshots whiz by while loitering in the streets. The very next day, Drayton says, he and those same friends scaled cars and ran atop the hoods for kicks.

“You’d think the (flying bullets) would be a key to just stop,” he said, “but the next day I’m back outside.”

He reached Armwood for his sophomore year after being dismissed from Blake High for shoving a teacher.

With his mom embroiled in legal troubles and his brother staying with relatives in Georgia, Drayton lived with the family of a friend in a mobile home about 10 minutes from Armwood.

His first year and a half at Armwood, he estimates he was suspended 10 times. Callahan corroborates that number.

“I had, like, a whole bunch of built-up anger, and the only way I could get it out, in my mind, was just fight all the time,” he said. “It’s sad to say it, but I had so much fun just doing it. Whenever I fought I had like, a weight lifted up off my shoulders.”

The middle of his junior year, that weight was supplanted by an angel of sorts.

A social worker had referred Drayton to Vicki Sokolik, founder of a nonprofit group that helps homeless and “unaccompanied” youth graduate and assimilate into society.

A mother of two and wife of a neuro-radiologist, Sokolik experienced an epiphany more than a decade ago while her daughter was in a Houston hospital being treated for frontal-lobe epilepsy.

“It was a teaching hospital, so it was pretty much poverty,” said Sokolik, who had spent 15 years in the advertising business. “All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Oh, my god.’ I had kind of forgotten, living in my bubble in Tampa Palms, that there was poverty.”

What began as a quest to provide cheerful Christmases to five homeless families evolved into Starting Right, Now. A 5-year-old program, SRN has four employees working out of a 900-square-foot office in Tampa Palms.

Kids are accepted only by referral through the Hillsborough County School District. Upon acceptance, they’re paired with a volunteer adult mentor. Homelessness is a prerequisite, as is the intangible Sokolik calls “the spark.”

Drayton, whose intellectual potential seemed as high as his temper was short, possessed it.

“There was something about Randall, and you know, it’s interesting because everyone told us — everyone — that he had anger issues,” said Sokolik, who has about 100 kids in her program.

“I didn’t see that in Randall. I saw this really gentle soul that just didn’t know where he was going.”

Direction was provided by Sokolik and volunteer mentor Sandra Davis, an Army wife, mother of three and grandmother of one. The pair set him up in a dorm-style apartment near USF, arranged for him to receive food stamps, badgered him to shape up scholastically, and urged him to set goals.

“It was like, all of a sudden he had a reason to get up in the morning to go to school,” Sokolik said. “And even though he would get so mad at Sandra and me … I think in the back of his head he knew, ‘I want to do this.’ ”

• • •

If Drayton embarked on the SRN program begrudgingly, he ended it splendidly.

As a senior, he received no out-of-school suspensions and competed in three sports, logging time as a defensive lineman on the 15-0 football team. He scored a 19 on the ACT. Callahan said that when fights erupted in the cafeteria, the onetime pugilist was the peacemaker.

He also flourished in Dale Carnegie Training, an eight-week program that teaches leadership, public speaking and interpersonal skills. Meanwhile, he reconnected with his mom, who had re-discovered a stability of her own.

“There’s been several transformations,” Davis said. “The one that readily jumps out at me is just willingness, I guess, to be on his own. He was very apprehensive initially in realizing that being on his own, he would be able to make wise choices. … I don’t believe Randall missed a day of school.”

Davis is counting on him not to miss a day of college either. With Callahan’s help, Drayton was accepted into Coastal Carolina University in Conway, S.C., where he’ll join the football team as a walk-on. SRN helped arrange student loans and other financial aid.

Now it’s up to the young man. The pushing, pestering and prodding are over. Sokolik and her peers have done their nurturing. Time to set Randall free and see if he can fly upward.

Beats spiraling downward.

“We got a kid that was really a troubled kid that’s leaving here with people skills, is intelligent, is obviously a better football player, but this is much more than being a better football player,” Callahan said. “He gets it. He actually understands how he’s going to be held accountable.”

Joey Knight can be reached at

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Categories: Featured

2011 NonProfit of The Year

Author – Matt Wiley

The years spent getting an education in the public school system can be some of the most challenging for kids today. The pressure of trying to fit in, get good grades and make the most of those adolescent years in the classroom really takes a toll on many young people. But, try to imagine all those same challenges without a supportive family or a place to call home.

Skye Schmelzer can imagine it. Just a few years ago, she was couch surfing by night, taking International Baccalaureate (IB) classes at King High and working at Moe’s Southwest Grill, barely making rent for her and her mother.

Today, she’s finishing up her sophomore year at the University of Florida in Gainesville studying Chinese. In fact, she recently returned from a trip to China to learn Mandarin. None of the opportunities she has had would have been possible without the help of Tampa Palms nonprofit group Starting Right, Now.

Helping to end homelessness one child at a time since 2008, Starting Right, Now (SRN) earned the title “2011 Non Profit of the Year” from WEDU-TV (Channel 3), west-central Florida’s primary PBS station, during the annual WEDU “Be More…” awards in February, beating out other well known nonprofits such as the Glazer Children’s Museum and The Spring of Tampa Bay.

“We were very shocked,” says SRN founder Vicki Sokolik. “We’re so young and new that I thought for sure that wouldn’t happen. It was amazing.”

According to WEDU’s website, the award was issued by an independent judging committee to the group that best fulfilled the “Four Commitments to the Community,” including service to the organization’s constituency, level of community impact, financial viability and embodiment of overall community goodwill.

“It was really cool that the impact we were having on these students was powerful enough for someone to say, ‘Okay, you really are making a difference,’” Sokolik explains.

In addition to the recognition, SRN also received a $1,000 WEDU Community Investment Grant that it will use to help students in the program participate in extracurricular activities at school, such as buying cleats for soccer or football or paying travel costs.

SRN’s mission since it’s creation by Sokolik and her husband, Joel, in 2008 is to help stop the “generational cycle” of homelessness in which many homeless students and families find themselves stuck. There are two sides SRN’s program. The first helps homeless families get on their feet by providing deposits to get into an apartment, finding employment for parents and making sure their children go on to accomplish their highest level of education possible. SRN pays the security deposit and first month’s rent for families, giving them 18 months to pay it back, using money from the job that the program helped the recipient get.

The bigger side to SRN, Sokolik says, is the side devoted to helping the federally termed “unaccompanied youth,” or, kids who are in high school, but not living with a parent or guardian, and are homeless. Sokolik mentioned one case in which a student was sleeping in the woods near his high school in a sleeping bag every night, but still going to school every day.

Schmelzer also fit into this group.

While attending King, located off of Sligh Ave. on 56th St., and taking IB classes, Schmelzer was living on-and-off with her mother.

“I was living with my mother and we were very poor,” she explains. “We were in a very small apartment with a lot of animals. It was a very uncomfortable situation.”

Schmelzer says that, in addition to taking IB classes, she also was working nights at Moe’s Southwest Grill at the Shops at Wiregrass Mall, while her mother was working at Taco Bell. Together, the two could barely make rent. Schmelzer says that her mother often asked her for money. She slept on friends’ couches even when she technically did have a home because, she says, she didn’t feel like she had one.

“I thought I was going to flunk out of IB,” she says. “I didn’t go to school for about a week and called in to drop out. The IB director begged me to stay. He said he had been in contact with someone recently, and that I would be a perfect candidate for that person’s program. I had no idea what he was talking about.”

That person was Vicki Sokolik.

A Whole New Life

A few days later, Schmelzer had an interview with SRN and its Board of Directors. Sokolik was one of the interviewers.

“I was accepted almost immediately,” she says. “I mean, the Board had to decide, but they basically looked at each other at the end of the interview and said, ‘Yeah, you’re a member starting right now.’”

Sokolik says that the program reaches out to students who are, like Schmelzer, referred to it by the Hillsborough County School District. She says it is generally a school social worker that first recognizes that a student is living on his or her own.

“(The program) is by referral only and we only take a limited number of students each year, usually around 30,” Sokolik says. “Our program is not easy. You have to really want to change your life.”

She explains that when considering students for the program, SRN looks at school attendance, test scores, life history and an puts the applicant through an interview process. During the two interviews with the Board, members get a chance to ”get a feel” for the student. At the end of the interview, the student is asked what their three wishes would be. Sokolik says that if the student answers with basic needs, “you know they’re the ones you’ll be able to help.”

Schmelzer began the program during the beginning of her senior year at King. SRN set her up with an apartment off of 56th St. and got her a job at Smoothie King off of Fowler Ave., much closer to her school and new home than the Moe’s at Wiregrass.

“They paid most of my rent,” she explains. “I only had to pay about $90 per month. It allowed me to save some money for college.”

And college is what SRN is all about.

“We are graduating 15 seniors this year,” Sokolik says. “All of them are going on to higher education on free rides.”

The rides aren’t completely free. SRN helps students fill out financial aid forms and apply for scholarships to assist in getting them as much financial help as possible. Sokolik says that SRN works with the colleges to get the rest of the necessary funding.

Schmelzer was one of the first to go through the program and on to college. She applied to three schools (USF, UF and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte). She chose UF, where she is currently studying Mandarin Chinese. Through UF’s Study Abroad program, and with the help of SRN, Schmelzer was able to travel to China during the summer of 2011.

“I basically said I wanted to learn Mandarin Chinese and I’m going to go to China,” she explains. “UF is really good about study abroad programs and making sure that any student who wants to, will. I learned a year’s worth of Chinese over the summer. I got to stay in Chengdu in the Sichuan Province and it was phenomenal. I honestly wouldn’t have been able to do it without SRN.”

Schmelzer says that she had to apply for a grant and a loan from SRN for the trip, both of which she qualified for and received.

“They’re always there to support me,” she says of SRN. “It’s not a handout. I have to work for it, obviously. I know that if I ever stop working, they’ll stop supporting me, but that’ll never happen because I’m so driven. They have faith in me. They see the progress.”

Things weren’t always like this for Schmelzer. Even after SRN began helping her, life was not easy. She still worked until 11 each school night before going home to do IB homework until 2 or 3 in the morning, only getting a few hours of sleep before having to be up in time to catch the bus at 6:30.

“That was really difficult, but at least I was in a better place,” she reminisces. “I was coming home to independence, instead of negativity.”

Sometimes she would miss the bus and have to call people she barely knew from school to try to get a ride, which she called an “awkward experience.”

“Most of the kids I went to school with were very privileged,” she says. “They had supportive families and were upper-middle class. Everybody has their problems; problems are relative, but none of those kids were at risk of being homeless, so they didn’t understand, and I got made fun of a lot for it. It was really hard to go through that and not have one person my age that was willing to help me.”

Luckily, SRN was, and still is, there for Schmelzer. Students in the program are given an adult mentor whom they are required to talk to every day while in the program.

Schmelzer still speaks with her mentor at least once a week, even though she is no longer with the program as a high school student. Mentors take the students on an “experience” once a week that can be something like going to the circus, or something as simple as eating at a restaurant.

Sokolik says that the program also requires students to attend school every day, take leadership classes, work 20 hours per week and go to therapy.

“It’s intense,” she says. “But it works.”

The program started when former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio heard that Sokolik and her husband were helping a homeless family per year get back on their feet and help the children of those families reach the highest level of education possible. They had been doing so since 2001.

“We had been doing that for about five or six years not even thinking that there would one day be a nonprofit attached to this,” she says.

Iorio asked if Sokolik would do what she was doing city wide if a Board of Directors was organized for it. Five years later, the Sokoliks are still doing it, but on a much grander scale. The SRN Board is a who’s-who of big names from around the Tampa Bay area, including its chairman Matt Silverman, the president of the Tampa Bay Rays, current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, as well as other prominent business leaders.

Sokolik and her husband have been living in Tampa Palms for more than 17 years and decided that this was the area for SRN to call home, as well. Their work has changed the lives of more than 100 families and students since 2001.

“It’s black and white, there’s no gray area with us, “she explains. “We take the student, we help them meet their education potential and we propel them to whatever that is. At the end of the day, they end up getting educated and stop the cycle of homelessness. We change the direction of their life, completely.”


Categories: Featured

Young mother wants help to change her baby’s name

By Elisabeth Parker, Times Staff Writer

The day they met, she curled her long brown hair, put on makeup and her teddy bear pajamas with a pink tank top. For months, he had texted her from his Air Force base in Utah 100 times a day, she said. They were introduced through a mutual friend that he knew when he used to live in Wesley Chapel. At night, they talked until she fell asleep. Tiffany Aponte was 15 then; he was 18. She told him everything. “He was my diary.”

He came to town for a brief visit and in time he became her boyfriend. Then she started getting messages on Facebook, from other girls in Utah. He had raped them, they said.

Police in Utah started calling her, too, she said. They told Aponte he was on trial for rape and wondered if she would testify against him. He had other children.

But she didn’t want to believe them. She wanted her baby to have a daddy. He booked a ticket to Tampa for the birth. But little Aliyah came early, so instead, he met his 6-week-old baby. Outside her mother’s house, she said, he pushed her into the back of his car and raped her.
But she didn’t tell.

“I never would say the word rape,” said Aponte, now 18. “When I think of rape, I don’t picture it as someone I used to love or someone I had a baby from.”

By the time Aliyah was born, Aponte said she could no longer live with her parents and moved in with a friend. When that family began having financial problems, Aponte and her baby were on the verge of being homeless. She was missing school. She had broken up with the father and he was busy fighting allegations of rape in Utah.

A school social worker referred her to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit organization that works through Hillsborough County Schools to eliminate the cycle of homelessness among high school students.

The organization set her up in an apartment to finish her senior year at Armwood High School. A mentor takes her grocery shopping and helps resolve problems.

There are many. There is no bus line near her apartment, she said. Aponte sometimes has to miss school because the school bus comes at 6:30 a.m. and her baby’s day care opens at 7 a.m. She hopes to get her driver’s license, a car and insurance so she won’t need to rely on friends for rides. She’s planning to go to Hillsborough Community College or the University of South Florida and eventually become a social worker.

“A social worker is like the superhero to kids in, like, my situation,” she said. Aponte had planned a different route for her life. At the start of her sophomore year at Armwood, she wrote an essay on virginity.

I’m happy to be one of the few girls in school still virgins. I’m a Christian and plan to wait till I’m married. I want to save myself for that one person. Her baby’s father is serving a three-year sentence for a conviction on multiple charges of sexual assault on minors. Aponte wants to terminate his parental rights. She wants to change their baby’s last name to hers. She regrets not telling on him.

She doesn’t regret giving birth to Aliyah. “I wouldn’t change that for anything,” she said.

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Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.

Categories: Featured


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