Graduates overcome giant obstacles

For years, the odds were stacked against them. They suffered from emotional disorders. Addictions to crack from birth. Constant upheaval in their lives. They were “throwaway kids.” Or at least they could have been.

Instead, they are high school graduates — and destined for much more. Ladarious Jackson, once the troublesome sixth-grader whose disability rendered him among the worst at Marchman Technical Education Center, plans to attend college. Alexis and Alesia Jackson, twins whose first days of life were spent shaking and crying because of drug withdrawals, will bring college credits to their first day at Howard University in Washington. Sergio Velazquez, whose family yanked him in and out of schools in New York and Florida, will attend Saint Leo University on a full scholarship. At his graduation, his mother told him, “You did it without me.”

But he did not do it alone. As he and other bright young stars who overcame adversity can attest, there are helping hands — an inspired foster parent turned full-time mom, an adult mentor or an organization willing to meet them halfway. For every success story, there is a sad tale of a young man who was given every break, only to squander it and wind up in prison — or worse. But these stories chronicled in recent days by Times’ writers are inspiring testaments to the resiliency and determination of so many teens who overcame adversity and are poised for even greater successes.

This season of high school graduations offers a moment to look beyond the tragedies that so often dominate the news and celebrate the quiet victories of those who overcame the odds with the help of others.

Categories: Featured

Student Story – Sergio Velazquez

By MICHELE SAGER  – The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA – Sergio Velazquez ran his hand across the brown fabric of his new couch.

The 18-year-old sat stunned, trying to absorb every aspect of the moment. Piece by piece, Velazquez watched the movers carry in the items to join his new couch.

He gazed at the new coffee table, dresser, kitchen table, chairs and lamp.

“I’m trying to keep it together,” he said. “But I know I’ll probably curl up in a ball and cry later.” For Velazquez, the items were more than new furnishings. They were a symbol of security and a future. They were proof he finally had a home.

Velazquez’s new furniture was thanks to the nonprofit group Starting Right, Now and a donation from Kane’s Furniture. The partnership has helped six families since December 2009.

The foundation provides assistance to homeless children and helps them complete school and get employment.

“We are not a hand out,” said Vicki Sokolik, executive director of the Start Right, Now foundation. “We give them the support and tools, but they have to want to help themselves.”

Velazquez’s guidance counselor at Leto referred the teen to the organization. He lost his father when he was young and his mother left him about six months ago.

The teen was staying with his step-father but never felt secure about where he would sleep at night.

“He was moving and I didn’t know where I would end up,” Velazquez said. “I just want to finish school here.”

When Velazquez turned 18, he dreamed of his own apartment and the foundation made that dream possible. They paired the teen up with mentor Deidre Peek, who helped teach him life skills such as managing a checking account and paying bills.

“It’s been a great experience for me because he’s just a fabulous kid,” Peek said. “It’s really opened my eyes about what I should teach as a mother.”

Velazquez’s apartment is being funded by the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, though the teen is responsible for a percentage of the cost. Kane’s Furniture donated $1,600 worth of items.

The teen also will work at a nearby YMCA and Sweetbay grocery store.

For now, the Leto junior’s top priority is finishing school. He is active in ROTC and wants to enter the military when he graduates and eventually wants to become a lawyer.

He likes to sing and write lyrics for his band in his spare time. The teen also participates in volunteer projects to help others despite his own obstacles. Velazquez has walked up to six miles to participate in volunteer events.

Though, his trips will be a bit easier now that he has a bicycle. Just don’t expect him to rest his feet on his new furniture.
“No feet are allowed on my tables or couch,” he joked.

Reporter Michele Sager can be reached at (727) 451-2344.

Categories: Featured

On the road again

Many more families are homeless this year because of the economy, and a few local charities and businesses are teaming up to help them out. Autoway and the nonprofit Wheels of Success are giving away vehicles to deserving people. One recipient was Maritza, a single mother with a job, but no way to get to it.

Maritza, whose last name is not being used because she was in an abusive situation, has been walking 40 minutes each day to and from her job, trying to support her three boys.

Less than a month ago, she was homeless, but thanks to the nonprofit Starting Right, Now, she has a home, a job and a fresh start. In addition to stabilizing the household, the organization is providing one-on-one mentoring to Maritza’s ninth-grade son in an effort to stop the cycle of homelessness.

Now Maritza says, with her minivan, life will be even better. “Everything’s changed,” she said.

A staff report

Categories: Featured

Samaritan steps up for homeless

By Stephanie Hayes, Times Staff Writer

TAMPA — Vicki Sokolik didn’t have an agenda or a particular gripe.

With homelessness skyrocketing, she just thought Mayor Pam Iorio might like to hear about things her family had done. So she turned up at a community meeting and spoke.

She told of a homeless woman and her teen daughter. The Sokoliks took them under their wing, inviting them to Thanksgiving and helping them find housing by Christmas.

She told of a high school dropout with legal trouble. The family helped him get a GED, a lawyer and a steady job. They helped his girlfriend stay in school, go to homecoming, get a yearbook.

The mayor listened.

Soon, the mother of two’s good samaritan idea had bloomed into a full-fledged pilot nonprofit program to help the homeless called Starting Right, Now.

She assembled a board of directors, including Iorio, Tampa Bay Rays president Matthew Silverman, Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Channel 8 anchor Stacey Schaible and school board member Candy Olson.

The board plans to match 10 trained mentors with 10 homeless families starting in September. The mentors will be selected based on character and willingness to devote 18 months to a family. They must personally know someone affiliated with the board and have skills to guide families to stability.

“These people want to do right by their kids, but don’t know how,” said Olson. “It’s not a matter of saying, ‘Take this course on financial responsibility and you’ll be fixed.’ It’s a matter of helping them through life the way our parents helped us through.”
With about 50,000 homeless children in Florida and people everywhere living close to the edge, Sokolik said it’s time for a fresh approach.

“The mentor will help them get a job, do their budgeting, make sure they understand how to pay their bills,” said Sokolik, 47, who lives in Tampa Palms. “They will help them reach family goals. The adage is, we’re teaching them to fish.”

To qualify, families must be homeless in Hillsborough County and have at least one child in ninth grade. It’s the perfect formative year, Sokolik said.

“If you can reach them in the ninth grade, you have the ability to do a lot of scholarship applications,” said Sokolik. “That’s the volatile year. You can teach them there is a bigger, better, bright future.”

She’s confident this will work.

That young girl she helped? She’s on a full scholarship at the University of Central Florida now. And the boy? He’s married and serving in the Army. They wrote the program’s first testimonials.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.

Categories: Featured


Starting Right, Now is a recognized
501c3 non-profit organization.
Donors will receive a letter
acknowledging their donation.

Online monetary donations may be
made via this secure link at


Join our newsletter today.

Enter your details.

Website Maintained and Hosted By

A Tampa Web Design Company