Homeless kids to gain home, education

— Homeless students in Pinellas County public schools could get a place to call home and a ticket to college as early as January.

Starting Right Now, a Hillsborough County nonprofit organization, has settled on the school district’s vacant Harris TIPS building, 4600 Haines Road, St. Petersburg, to launch the Pinellas wing of its comprehensive homeless youth program.

The homeless teens who have participated in Starting Right Now in Tampa have a 100 percent high school graduation rate, said Lori Matway, Pinellas associate superintendent of student and community support. Students in 10th and 11th grades go through an extensive interview process before being accepted into the program, but once they do they “become part of their family,” Matway said at a school board discussion Tuesday.

Starting Right Now staff members stay throughout their students’ high school and college years. The program pays for everything from dental and medical care to clothing and transportation, as well as college costs. Even students enrolled in college get funding for expenses such as housing, food, clothing, supplies and tuition. Funding for each student comes from local business groups.

“They’re very particular with the students they select. They go through a two-hour long interview process … but they know what to look for in students,” Matway said. “It may not necessarily be the ones that have been the most successful. It’s that resilience factor that they look for. They have taken students that no one else would take — with criminal records and attendance issues — and it’s amazing where they are now.”

Because of the extensive support the students receive, space in the program’s housing is limited. At maximum capacity, the Pinellas program could accommodate 30 males and 30 females in separate dormitory facilities at Harris TIPS, a school for teen parents that closed in 2011. The school will be converted to a dormitory with a living room, dining room and bedrooms, said Michael Bessette, Pinellas associate superintendent of operational services. Two wings of the building had been remodeled for preschool.

With more than 3,000 documented homeless students in Pinellas County, the program fills a huge and growing need. In comparison, in 2007-08, there were 962, according to the school district.

The district’s Homeless Education Assistance Team has culled a list of students to be interviewed for the program, Matway said.

When students are identified as homeless or “couch hoppers” — going from home to home and friend to friend — teachers and guidance counselors can refer them to see if they would be a candidate for the program, Matway said.

The exceptionally successful program was started in Hillsborough seven years ago by Vicki Sokolik and Tampa Bay Rays President Matt Silverman. At least 100 students have been referred to Starting Right Now by the Hillsborough school district, and about 40 to 50 are pursuing a higher education.

Each student is paired with a mentor who contacts the student daily, following them through high school, into college and beyond. When the program’s college students get a break from classes, and as their friends head home for vacation, many return to the Starting Right Now house to spend time with their surrogate families.

“It’s our mentor program on steroids,” Matway said. “It becomes their home.”

School district officials are finalizing a contract with Starting Right Now, and then must start the extensive process of rezoning, which includes four or five public hearings, before the old school building can house students.

Starting Right Now must form a new governing board for Pinellas County; its first meeting is Aug. 26. Board members so far include Pinellas schools Superintendent Michael Grego; Silverman; Jim Myers, former chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation; and Jabil’s vice president of human resources, Phil Hubbell.

“We’re pulling together some really powerful men and women to support this cause, and it will be our Starting Right Now, not Hillsborough’s Starting Right Now,” Matway said.

Starting Right Now will fund the renovations for Harris TIPS, but the building will belong to the school board and may be used however the board deems fit if the program ends. Improvements must meet the school district’s criteria, but the project has no cost to the district, Grego said.

“I would have never guessed this would be the cause or reason for us holding onto this building, but when I first walked through with Vicki (Sokolik) it was like it was made for this,” Grego said. “It has two wings, two kitchens. This is going to really help our students.”

About $816,000 in grants and contributions were made to Starting Right Now in 2012. Many students who complete the program and become successful adults end up making donations to the group, Grego said.

In Hillsborough, the program houses about 22 students in a remodeled home on Bayshore Boulevard.

There is extensive work to be done at Harris TIPS, but the program has found great support countywide, Grego said.



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Categories: Featured

Starting Right, Now Receives Humana Grant

A local charity has been named the proud recipient of a giant donation in the form of a grant from a national company.

According to a September 16 press release, the Tampa Palms-based charity Starting Right, Now (SRN — a nonprofit that works to eliminate homelessness among Tampa Bay-area youth), received this year’s Humana Communities Benefit charitable grant, a $350,000 donation from the Humana Foundation, the fifth year the company has made such donations.

SRN provides homeless teenagers with resources to get themselves on their own two feet, offering programs that include mentoring, employment and a stable home, as well as education in self-sufficiency and financial literacy. 

The press release states that SRN will use the money to help expand its housing facility for runaway children in Carrollwood, called Haven Poe. The donation is expected to help the facility be able to double the number of kids it currently can house. The release says that the organization also plans to restore a school in Pinellas County that will be used for dormitories, offices and a training center. Some of the money also will be used to purchase a vehicle to help get teens to medical appointments and mentorship programs.

“We’re confident that this $350,000 Humana Communities Grant will help us take a giant leap towards our goal of ending homelessness in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties,” said SRN founder and longtime New Tampa resident Vicki Sokolik in the release. “This generous funding will allow us to transform the lives of more than three times the number of teens we mentor each year and help us identify if this is a program we can implement outside of the Tampa Bay area.”

As we reported two issues ago, to win the grant, SRN had to collect online votes at the Humana Foundation’s website. SRN was up against two other Bay-area nonprofits — the Pinellas Education Foundation and Sunrise of Pasco, which provides violence intervention services. In addition to earning votes, SRN also had to make a formal presentation to a panel of judges made up of community leaders from around Tampa Bay.

SRN will receive the money in three installments over the next three years.

“By expanding their housing facilities, (SRN) will ensure that more homeless teenagers are provided with the fundamentals needed to focus on their personal development instead of survival,” said Humana’s Central & North Florida Vice President Al Hernandez. “Humana is pleased to support such a sustainable program, as we know this funding will help area youth maintain stable and healthy lives for years to come.”

For more info, please visit Starting RightNow.org.

Categories: Featured

New Tampa mom, others win “local heroes” award from Bank of America

Could she pay for elementary school classmates who couldn’t afford field trips?

Could she mentor a high school student whose family’s hardships might force her to drop out?

In those cases and more, his mother obliged. Now his way of saying “thank you” rings with the same sense of volunteerism: Cameron nominated his mom for a $5,000 service award.

Which she won.

“I have set up more beds in strangers’ apartments,” Cameron, now 20, wrote in the application, “traveled to more unfamiliar places to deliver dinner and have been reminded of how fortunate — and frankly spoiled — I am, more times than I can remember, all because of my mother.”

Sokolik was recognized as a “local hero” by Bank of America last week, collecting a $5,000 prize to donate back to her organization, Starting Right, Now. The nonprofit supports homeless families with high school students by providing mentors who help find housing and jobs. The goal, Sokolik said, is to help students attain the highest level of education to prevent homelessness in the future. Sokolik, 49, of New Tampa, serves as founder and executive director.

Bank of America’s “Neighborhood Excellence Initiative” honored 10 leaders in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties with the grant this year. Ten high school students received paid internships over the summer and leadership training in Washington, D.C. Four organizations landed $200,000 each for serving their neighborhoods.

“They represent everything that truly is good about our community,” said Bill Goede, market president for Bank of America in Tampa Bay.

This is the seventh year the neighborhood awards have been given in Hillsborough County, and the sixth year in Pinellas County.

The Academy Awards-style ceremony for the Hillsborough winners brought more than 100 people to the Tampa Theatre last week. With cheers rising from the crowd, award recipients stepped out of black limos onto a red carpet and claimed miniature gold Oscars on stage with emotional acceptance speeches.

Sokolik devoted hers to her son, her source of inspiration.

“I learned from him,” she said about Cameron, who did not attend the ceremony. A junior at Stanford University, he is studying abroad in China.

Cameron studies psychology, although he’s still unsure about his future career. One thing is clear, though — he’ll be following in his mother’s footsteps.

“My gut tells me he’ll do something to change humanity,” Sokolik said.

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

Categories: Featured

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.

Categories: Featured

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


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


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


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