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.”

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