With need great, more homeless teens to get help

“My mom lost her job and she had drug problems,” said Rogers, now 23 years old and a graduate of Starting Right Now, which helps homeless teens.

With need great, more homeless teens to get help
Rogers plans on graduating from USF soon with a degree in public health. She’s also a resident assistant at Starting Right Now’s new Pinellas County location.

“People say to me all the time, these are bad kids,” founder Vicki Sokolik said. “These are amazing kids that were dealt a bad hand and without someone to help the shuffle the deck, they don’t stand a chance.”

There’s no public funding. Ajax Construction and its sub-contractors donated the work to convert an old school in a full-serve campus. It will house nearly 50 homeless teens who are recommended by their schools.

Sokolik says she provides a hand up, not a hand-out.

“They have chores, they have rules, they have to be at school, they have to do their schoolwork, they have to be in our offices for leadership training, they have to work 20 hours a week,” continued Sokoli, who founded Starting Right, Now in Tampa 10 years ago.

Since then, more than 200 homeless kids in the program have graduated and many went to college.

“There were over 4,000 unaccompanied youth in Pinellas County, which makes it third in the nation for these kids with no permanent housing solutions. We are it,” said Sokolik.

It was a lifesaver for Hillary. “I am soaring in the sky right now, compared to where I could be,” she offered.

It’s not just a bed for homeless teens, it’s the chance for a future.

Categories: In the News

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 azayas@tampabay.com.
Categories: Featured, In the News

Rough road to graduation included sleeping on porch, couch surfing

TAMPA — Only in hindsight did Yves Luma realize her mother never intended to get on the plane.
Luma was 9. She wore a flowing white summer shirt and baggy jeans that she could grow into. Her mother said they were going to the United States, a land of shining streets and beautiful homes.
On the tarmac at the airport in Haiti, her mother told her to go ahead. Board the plane with the attendant. Her mother would follow behind. Luma found her seat midway down the plane and peered down the aisle waiting for her mother.
Then the door closed and the plane took off.
Luma remembers how odd she must have looked, alone and crying in the crowded plane. She remembers passengers asking her where her parents were. She didn’t know.
Now 18, Luma hasn’t seen her mother since that day.
Her life became about survival.
Sometimes she wondered if she would make it. She slept on a porch or with neighbors. And once, for a week, she slept in her high school locker room.
But on Tuesday, Luma will graduate from Blake High School. In August, she’s headed to Florida State University.
• • • In Haiti, her life with her mother was unstable. Luma was moved around, but she always knew her mother loved her. In their one-room house, her mother slept on the floor so Luma could have the only bed.
Her mother had made the best griot — chunks of pork marinated in citrus, simmered and slightly charred on the edges.
In America, she met her father for the first time. She moved into a house with three of his other children whose mothers also lived in Haiti. Two other families also lived there. They were poor. There was no air conditioning. Luma slept on the floor, next to bugs and a mouse.
Her father called it the projects. He usually came home late, sometimes not at all.
During one of his absences, neighbors told his children he had flown back to Haiti and married and was bringing his new bride back to live with them.
• • • Her father made a rule that the children had to come straight home after school and never leave the house.
Luma spoke only Haitian Creole so she worked hard to fit in at school and learn English.
She sang in her church choir and managed to get into Blake High’s choral magnet program, even though she couldn’t get a ride to the audition. Sometimes, the school chorus performed late.
On nights when her father made it home before Luma, no one was allowed to let her in. Luma would sleep on the second-floor porch.
During her junior year at Blake High, she almost gave up. She loved school, but didn’t think college was possible. If she dropped out and got a job, she could get her own place.
Luma landed a job at a beauty salon. She spent more nights on the porch.
Then she decided to leave home. She slept in the locker room at school for about a week before getting caught. Police told her they would have to release her back into her father’s custody. He had reported her as a runaway.
A neighbor let her stay for two days.
It’s called “couch surfing” by those who work with homeless teens. When they don’t see home as an option, teens typically bounce between friends and neighbors.
At this point, Luma reached out to her school social worker.
• • • The social worker got her an interview with Starting Right, Now — a program that provides housing and training to help homeless and unaccompanied young people finish school.
Since its start in 2007, the program has helped 190 teens get into college, a vocational program or the military. In August, the program will expand to a campus in Pinellas County.
Starting Right, Now founder Vicki Sokolik remembers how Luma tried to get herself kicked out of the program at first.
“She would test us to see if we were going to react like her dad.”
They didn’t. Luma took classes in subjects such as mindfulness, rational living, anger management and Dale Carnegie public speaking.
Like many of the students in the program, she decided to pursue a career helping others. She plans to be a nurse.
Luma has forgiven her father.
“I invited him to my graduation,” she said.
At a recent graduation dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy, she reflected on her life since entering the program.
“I feel like I’m in control now,” she said. “I feel like my life is what it’s supposed to be.”
Contact Ian Dyer at hillsnews@tampabay.com
Categories: In the News

Homeless sisters, one at Armwood, help each another stay in school

SEFFNER — When the school bell rang, Kemari Hayes sprinted home so her classmates wouldn’t find out where she lived.
Home was a room at a motel, just off Interstate 4.
Inside, Kemari, then 15, closed the door, locking out the crime that she see through the window.
She did her homework and watched SpongeBob SquarePants.
Kemari and her two older sisters were dropped off at the motel and lived there for eight months. The sisters were everything to each other. They knew education was the best hope to escape their plight, but they almost gave up on it.
Today, Hayes graduates from Armwood High School. She earned admission into Saint Leo University and starts in August. Her sisters are attending Hills­borough Community College. In her college essay, Hayes, now 18, shared the story of how they made it out.
“I want to show others that no matter where you come from or what your situation is,” Hayes wrote, “you can achieve anything you set your mind to.”
• • • Before the sisters came to the motel, Hayes recalls hearing her mother arguing with the landlord. They were on their way to their fourth eviction that year.
While her sisters worked, Kemari would look out the motel window now and then and see people snorting cocaine. Women lurked by the road, waiting for a car to approach.
The motel room was small and cluttered, infested with roaches and reeking of mildew.
Still, she was afraid to open the door.
At night, she lay on a futon staring at ceiling tiles and thinking about her mother and her sisters.
She felt trapped, she said.
Keonni, the oldest at 19, dropped out of school to work so her sisters could stay in school. But they soon discovered her Walmart paycheck wouldn’t cover much more than the cost of the motel room, which was more than $800 a month. That meant Ke-Erica, 17, needed to work so they could eat. She got a job at a fast-food restaurant.
With no stove and a tiny refrigerator, they lived on Ramen noodles and the dollar menu at another nearby fast-food restaurant.
They didn’t have a car, and buses didn’t run late enough to get them home. Every night, Kemari waited up until 3 a.m. for her sisters, who had to navigate the danger she saw from the window.
• • • There are hundreds of homeless teens in local high schools, say those who work with them.
Eventually Ke-Erica, the middle sister, grew stressed and told a friend, who told a school social worker.
The social worker connected them with Starting Right, Now, a program that helps homeless teens complete their educations.
So far, the program has helped 190 teens get into college, a vocational program or the military.
The sisters didn’t have many options, but they made one demand of Starting Right, Now: They must stay together.
Vicki Sokolik, founder and executive director, remembers how guarded Kemari was at first.
“She was like a hot kettle,” Sokolik said.
“I hated everyone,” Kemari said.
She wanted her space.
Kemari didn’t want to enter the program, but her sisters were adamant. They saw it as their only choice. In her first speech as part of the program’s mandatory Dale Carnegie public speaking classes, Kemari walked to the podium and said the word “shoelaces” then sat down.
A staff member wondered if she was autistic. Sokolik was sure she was just stubborn. She was confident Kemari would learn to trust them.
One day, Kemari excitedly told everyone her mom was coming to visit for her birthday. When the day arrived, Kemari’s mother didn’t show. Things come up, Sokolik told Kemari.
So the two went to get pedicures and made cookies together. After that, Kemari began to open up.
“She realized I was someone who wasn’t going to just leave her life,” Sokolik said.
“You’re stuck with me,” she told Kemari.
• • • At a recent graduation dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy, Kemari celebrated with 12 other students in Starting Right, Now, who are graduating from high schools across the county. They laughed at a slideshow of their time together. Each student and mentor talked about the journey together.
Kemari had wanted to parachute from a plane with her mentor, Sharon Watson. Watson laughed and told her she would watch from the ground. Their relationship had evolved to a deep bond.
“I know you’re going to take all these blessings that you were given, and you’re going to give back,” Watson said. “Because you have what it takes to reach out and do the same things that were done for you.”
Contact Ian Dyer at hillsnews@tampabay.com.
Categories: In the News

Wharton High senior lost her mother, but not her drive

NEW TAMPA — Sometimes a raw deal can knock a person off track.
So it was for Crystal Ramroop, who was 16 when her mother’s heart gave out.
“She was my best friend,” said Ramroop, now 18. “Every time something happened in my life, I told her first. It wasn’t real until she knew.”
She had called the ambulance and as a gurney took her mother away, Ramroop watched her mother’s eyes roll back ominously.
Ramroop fell to her knees in the middle of the road and wailed.
Her mother lingered in the hospital for a month in a vegetative state. Ramroop visited every day and stroked her mother’s face and held her hand.
“Mama, I love you so much. I miss you.”
A tear would roll down her face.
Doctors said it was time to decide when to take her off life support but then she slipped away.
••• Ramroop’s life became a struggle and she wondered what she had done to deserve this. It would seem she had buried her childhood with her mother.
Midway through her senior year at Wharton High School, everyone — even Ramroop — had given up on her graduating. She had missed too much school: 85 days one year and 75 the next.
And yet, mere months later, she was recognized with the district’s Turnaround Achievement Award, for making the biggest come back in her school.
On Wednesday, she crossed the stage to take her diploma; she wore her mother’s cross around her neck.
“I feel like she’ll be there with me,” Ramroop said before the ceremony.
••• Parents play a pivotal role in our lives.
For Ramroop, it was a surreal feeling: knowing the person who gave her life was gone.
“It feels kind of like a string that runs up from the top of your head has been cut,” she said.
She cried an ocean that first week, and then she was dry.
She dreamed her mother was alive but when she would wake, she realized the crushing truth. She replayed the days before her mother died with different outcomes. She wished she had been home more. Wished she had called for help sooner.
Her mother had been the backbone of the family.
She had worked as a security guard and paid the bills and held the family together. Ramroop was the youngest of her 8 children.
When most of the older ones were still at home, they would pile into her van and drive to the beach on weekends. It was their happy place. Her mother would relax and forget about her troubles. On the way home, they’d stop at Golden Corral where Ramroop would skip dinner for a lovely stream of ice cream swirled into a bowl, despite her mother’s scolding.
As Ramroop grew older, she would come in the door to a hug and they would sit for hours at the kitchen table, just talking. She would tell her to not give up when things were hard at school.
It’s those little things she misses most.
••• After her mother’s death, she was living with her father in an apartment. He was not coping well. She began to take care of him, stepping into a role her mother had played.
Her father got a girlfriend. His health deteriorated. He was staying out late, Ramroop said. She waited up for him, calling at 3 a.m. to beg him to come home.
Her friends soon fell away. Often, in the mornings, she was too tired to go to school. She couldn’t focus on algebra when she feared a knock on her door would be the news that she had lost her remaining parent.
Ramroop begged rides and borrowed food stamps. But she couldn’t hold things together at home.
One day, she went to school and told a counselor about an eviction notice. She was going to be homeless.
But the counselor had a different plan. She referred Ramroop to a nonprofit called Starting Right, Now.
Ramroop is one of 13 students in the program countywide who are graduating from high school this month. None of them were on track to make it when they signed up. Now, one is joining the Marines, and the others are going to college.
••• The program takes homeless kids who have the grit to succeed. It’s intense, and Ramroop wasn’t sure at first. There are rules and structure, all of which felt alien to her. And, she feared her father would die without her. But she is learning that she is responsible only for herself.
In August, she starts classes at Hillsborough Community College. Then she plans to transfer to the University of South Florida and become a therapist.
Her mother’s absence is a constant pain. Like missing part of her heart, she said.
But you learn to live with the void in your heart.
You have no choice.
Ramroop wants to honor her mother’s legacy. She wants to go to college and to find her own happy place.
She recently heard something in a Mindfulness Rational Living course, a requirement of the program, about the joy of giving to others.
It’s true, she said: “The best way to be happy is to help someone else.”
Contact Elisabeth Parker at hillsnews@tampabay.com.
Categories: In the News

Nonprofit group to aid homeless

Printed from the Tampa Tribune.

By JAMIE PILARCZYK – jpilarczyk@tampatrib.com

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 http://startingrightnow.org/.

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


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