On a cold night four months ago, La’Quita Carter took a pillow from the trunk of her car, climbed into the back seat and wrapped herself in an old blanket.

A polar blast was sliding south, prompting sheet-draped outdoor foliage and the opening of Tampa’s shelters.

La’Quita was 18 that cold night and needed a few hours of sleep before school. She had parked outside an apartment building and, as usual, she was scared. She had nightmares of someone breaking in to her car to get her. She was scared to tell anyone she was homeless, scared of what might happen to her in the system.

La’Quita pondered her situation as she shivered and turned the engine on to warm up.

“Why is my life this way?”

In the morning, she would drive to school early enough to slip in to the teachers bathroom where there was a stall with a sink. She would style her hair and brush her teeth. After school she was on the track team she would take a shower in the girls locker room.

It was her senior year at Blake High School. La’Quita still had hope.

There are hundreds of homeless kids in the county’s schools, say those who work with them.

How does it happen?

La’Quita doesn’t remember ever living with her father, who she said has been in and out of jail throughout her life. Her mother was 15 when La’Quita was born and had to drop out of school. La’Quita went to several elementary schools in Tampa, and Madison and Monroe middle schools. In middle school, she started running track. She auditioned for the musical theater arts magnet at Blake High School and got in.

La’Quita liked school, where the rules were consistent and the subjects interesting. But things lacked structure at home and there was no peace between daughter and mother.

“We kept bumping heads,” La’Quita said.

The bumps got bad in her sophomore year. She didn’t want to go home after school.

La’Quita had to move out.

La’Quita stayed with a cousin and with a friend for a while. She worked about 20 hours a week at McDonald’s since she was 16. But after a manager cut her hours, she applied at AT&T. When an interviewer told her he didn’t think she would be a good fit, she was dismayed. But she came back and asked for another interview. She needed the job and would work hard, she said. Her persistence paid off.

She saved her money to make a down payment on a gray Ford Fusion. Everything she owned was in that car with her. The trunk held a bag of toiletries on the right side, clothes in the middle and bedding on the left.

She worked weekdays from 5 to 11 p.m.

In September, she started sleeping in her car. The bump between the back seats made her back ache. Some nights she was hungry. Once, a police officer tapped on her window while she slept outside an apartment building. She told him she was waiting for someone. He told her she had to leave.

She dreamed of going to college on a track scholarship, but was not sure how to make it happen. She hadn’t yet passed the FCAT. She didn’t know how to apply to colleges.

Some of the adults she knew questioned whether she would graduate. That hurt, La’Quita said.

“It felt like they already expected me to fail,” she said.

Keeping a secret can be lonely. La’Quita never hinted to classmates, even to closest friends, that she was homeless.

“Everyone just thought I had it all together,” she said.

She was born small and was followed by a sister the next year. That baby was too small. She had died. La’Quita often wonders what it would be like if she lived.

“What would she look like? Would she look better than me?” La’Quita wondered. “Would we be close? I don’t have anyone to be close with. If something happens to me, I wouldn’t tell anyone. I’m scared to open up to people.”

For some reason on that cold morning, La’Quita told her secret to a social worker. The counselor steered her to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit that works with Hillsborough County high schools. Their goal is to eliminate the cycle of homelessness, by wrapping students in a grueling schedule of tutoring and classes in leadership, etiquette and motivation. Founder Vicki Sokolik serves as a super mom. She says she sees the physical change in the kids after a month in the program as they drop stress. Hope changes everything, Sokolik says.

La’Quita moved into the program’s transitional home, Haven Poe, a former runaway shelter off Bayshore Boulevard in March. She was accepted into Saint Leo University and plans to major in sports medicine or business.

La’Quita, now 19, passed the FCAT two weeks ago and went to prom last week. She is set to graduate June 6.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

After living in her car, student finds a home and hope 05/22/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014 10:21am]

2014 Tampa Bay Times

Hometown Hero: South Tampa dentist treats students who need care


Published: December 24, 2013 | Updated: December 24, 2013 at 08:17 PM
TAMPA Dequjuan Martin spent years with tooth pain, along with the headaches it caused and the trouble he had concentrating in school.

Martin, a 19-year-old Armwood High School senior who goes by Qujuan, couldnt remember the last time he had his teeth cleaned.

That all changed when he met Dr. Caitilin Martini, a South Tampa dentist, who gave him a root canal, installed crowns and fillings and cleaned his teeth for free.

Shes a great lady, said Martin, who has no parents or legal guardian. I used to be in pain.

Martini began doing free dental work for a dozen or more Hillsborough County students about two years ago. Thats when she got involved with Starting Right Now, an organization that offers support to students like Martin who need a boost getting through school.

They receive free medical and dental care, as well as a mentor, a place to live and help applying to colleges.

In addition to offering her services, Martini has rounded up a team of local specialists she calls on if a student needs something beyond her scope of work. They include a periodontist, an oral surgeon, a root canal specialist and an endodontist.

She bends over backwards, said Vicki Sokolik, Starting Right Now founder. Our kids do not have dental insurance. The majority have either never seen a dentist or have not in so long that theyre having all sorts of issues. A pretty significant amount of her time and resources have been used to help us.

Born and raised in South Tampa, Martini, 46, graduated from Academy of Holy Names then the University of Florida, where she attended dental school. She is now a partner at Muscaro and Martini Dentistry on Bay to Bay Boulevard.

She decided to get involved with Starting Right Now after attending the organizations annual luncheon with a friend. She had been working with a national organization called Give Back a Smile, which helps victims of domestic violence. But she wanted to use her work to help locals.

The stories she heard at the luncheon were eye-opening. She heard tales of students molested by father figures. One students family returned home one day to find they had been evicted.

Its unfortunate, she said. For most of the kids, its circumstances, not bad choices. Some of them have made some bad choices because of their circumstances and have not had anyone there to educate them or tell them a different way.

Martini said helping the students who remain her patients even after they graduate from high school is just her way of giving back to the community. Her office contributes up to $2,500 per month to the students dental needs.

She hopes to establish a lecture series on dental heath for the students in the future.

The easiest thing for me to do is give dentistry, she said. It makes me feel really good to be able to help these kids in a way that maybe they wouldnt be able to be helped. Weve made special bonds with all of the students who come in here. They are really good kids.

On Monday, Martin stopped by Martinis office to get his teeth cleaned. Afterward, she pulled up a chair and peered into his mouth while they talked about their Christmas plans.

Qujuan, everything is looking really good, she said.

Martini suggested that Martin think about taking better care of his teeth by cutting back on the Gatorade.

Martin appreciates that his dentist takes the time to teach him about oral health.

Every time I come in, he said, I learn new things.



Twitter: @ErinKTBO

Categories: Featured

Once homeless, now home for the holidays

FOX 13 News

Terrell Jefferson, a student at Florida A&M University, unpacked for holiday break. He then went into the living room and started playing a board game. Everyone was gathered sharing the holiday spirit.

It could be any home, but Terrell’s home is special. It’s filled with other teens who share a common bond – they grew up homeless.

The state took the 19-year-old from his mother when he was a baby because of her terrible drug addiction.

“And, growing up, my father was in prison most of my life,” Jefferson said. “When I finally did meet my father, I was 18.”

A few months later, his father died of cancer, leaving Terrell homeless and couch-hopping with friends and relatives.

It’s Not Easy

A teacher suggested he apply for a program called Starting Right Now. He would either sink or swim.

“Because our program is hard,” said Vicki Sokolik, who founded the non-profit in 2008. “It’s not a free ride by any stretch of the imagination.”

Starting Right Now is home to 24 teenagers at a time. They have to attend school every day and sign a contract to work 20 hours a week in a job that’s assigned. They must clean their rooms and do their laundry. They are provided with a mentor, tutoring, room, and board.

Terrell flourished, graduated from high school, and received a full scholarship at FAMU, where he was a star on the soccer team last season.

The Kids and Their Kids

At the end of this school year, Starting Right Now will have helped 125 homeless teenagers. Not only do they get help to get through school, but in many cases, they find the family that they never had.

“These guys are like my brothers and sisters,” said Terrell, who will spend much of the holiday break here at the Starting Right Now home.

Vicki talks glowingly of “her kids.” Many are the first in their family to finish high school, and most are the first to go to college. Surprisingly, she said it’s not as much about them as it is about their children.

“When they have kids and their kids have kids, they’re not going to be on welfare, not on food stamps, not on Medicaid,” she said. “That’s when you’re going to see the societal benefit from this organization.”

Where to Now?

Starting Right Now’s success with getting homeless kids into college has yielded a good problem to have. The students they’ve moved onto campuses would like to “come home” for the holidays, but space is tight.

Terrell is squeezed into an empty room, but others are put up at hotels. The Starting Right Now home is a former county runaway shelter, and there’s room to expand. Vickie has started fundraising to turn an unused part of the second floor into a “Home for the Holiday” area for returning students like Terrell.

Changing Everything

I asked Terrell where he might have ended up had it not been for Starting Right Now.

“I would have ended up in jail or dead,” he said. Now, he’s loving college and playing sports at FAMU. He plans to become a nurse, or even a doctor.

“Once I got to college, that’s when it all hit me,” he said. “You can really do what you want to do with your life.”

For more information, visit www.startingrightnow.org

Categories: Featured

Starting Right, Now secures a home for young people near Bayshore

Vicki Sokolik hovered between unyielding gratitude and sheer joy Wednesday.

Sokolik, the executive director of Starting Right, Now, spent Wednesday officially assuming control of the old Haven Poe Runaway Shelter near Bayshore Boulevard. Under Starting Right, Now’s watchful eye, the Tampa shelter will serve as an apartment complex for the unaccompanied youths her upstart nonprofit organization serves.

The students, who will soon call the complex home, will no longer live alone in apartments after being abandoned by their parents. Starting Right, Now’s teens � good kids who through no fault of their own end up without a stable place to live � embark on a path of success by going through a holistic process that focuses not only on improving schoolwork but growing as a person… Full Store Here

Categories: Featured

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 publicservice@ad2tampabay.org 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 www.ad2tampabay.org.

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 www.startingrightnow.org.

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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 azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Categories: Featured


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