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 StartingRightNow.org.

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