By Ellen Nason
(Note: This is the first in a series of videos and articles profiling the three winners of this year’s $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grants.)
La’Quita Carter led the hectic life of a typical high school student: classes, part-time job, sports, social activities. At the end of a busy day, her classmates headed home to their families and a good night’s sleep in their own comfortable beds. La’Quita looked for a safe place to park her car where she would spend the night, hoping she would come to no harm and no one would discover her secret: She was homeless and alone.
One cold night as she crawled into the back of her car to sleep, she knew she had to talk to someone. She could no longer face scary nights alone in a car and worry about getting to school early enough to freshen up in a bathroom before class. She shared her secret with her school counselor the next day, but instead of causing more problems as she had feared, it opened the door to a better life, giving her hope, a home and a reason to believe that anything is possible.
Her counselor recommended she participate in Starting Right, Now, a Tampa, Florida, nonprofit program that is helping a growing number of homeless families and children end a cycle of poverty, homelessness and hopelessness. The nonprofit, one of this year’s three winners of a $350,000 Humana Communities Benefit grant, goes beyond providing temporary shelter and temporary solutions. Its goal is to end homelessness, one child at a time, by taking a holistic and personalized approach that helps young people with every need, both immediate and in the future. The program emphasizes education, empowerment, motivation, responsibility, stability and community.
La’Quita, a 19-year-old college student majoring in sports medicine, faced an uphill climb from birth. Her mother was only 15 when La’Quita was born and had to drop out of high school. The family struggled financially and emotionally, and the strain eventually became too much for La’Quita, who left home while still in high school.
“I was down but motivated,” she said. “My mom didn’t finish high school, and I didn’t want to be that way. I wanted to end the cycle. I knew it would get better. A lot of people doubted me – even my own mom at one time, but I wanted to prove them wrong. I stayed focused and knew I would be successful in life.”
She worked long hours on weekends and after classes when she was homeless, but she never stopped studying because she was resilient, determined, loved learning and enjoyed the structure she found at school – and at Starting Right, Now. The nonprofit helps each student find a job, gives them shelter and food, medical and dental care and tutoring. It also teaches financial literacy, helps with college and vocational school applications and assigns a mentor, who becomes an advocate offering daily guidance and, often, a lifelong bond. In return, the student must attend classes, clean his or her room and be committed and dedicated to building a better life.
“There are so many stories in this house,” La’Quita said during a recent interview at the Starting Right, Now property that provides a home for dozens of teens. “Some have had parents die. But they are very strong and are still trying to better themselves. People want to help people who are motivated. Everyone needs help and everyone needs a little extra push sometimes. They get that here. When people come here, they have hope. No excuses. You have everything you need. I’m thankful and blessed.
As a high school student in Tampa, Jorge Gonzalez was working until 1-2 a.m., struggling to pass his classes and living alone in his car.
He had not had contact with his mother for months when he learned that she was in jail. He said he broke down and, while it was a low point in his life, he was determined to be strong, to keep going. He turned to a school counselor, who talked to him about Starting Right, Now. He found a family, a home and the help he needed to change his life.
“Without them, I would not have passed high school,” said Jorge. “It made me feel I was worth it. The people here saw my potential. One day I thought, ‘Wow, I’m worth giving a shot, worth being helped.’”
Jorge said that even though he once thought he didn’t like school, he was still determined to get an associate’s degree and become a veterinary technician. But he said the Starting Right, Now, program has motivated him to pursue a bachelor’s degree and give serious consideration to becoming a veterinarian.
He also credits Tony Lisotta, his mentor, for helping him achieve more than even he thought was possible and to set higher goals.
“He was always there for me,” Jorge said. “He helped me solve problems and find solutions and is definitely a role model of what I want for my future.”
The Starting Right, Now program encourages students to maintain relationships with their parents and other family members, and Jorge has reconnected with his mother, who attended his high school graduation this summer.
“At first, my mom was really depressed about me going into the program because she felt she had failed as a mother… until she saw me graduate,” Jorge said. “Then she showed all emotions except sadness. Seeing her like that made me the happiest person in the world.” He said that at that moment she realized that Starting Right, Now, had given her son an opportunity, given him a future.
Vicki Sokolik, Founder and Executive Director of Starting Right, Now
Vicki Sokolik says an experience staying with her daughter during a long hospitalization years ago woke her to the reality that many people must struggle daily to ensure that their families have the basics in life. She knew she had to help, even if in a small way, even if it was one child or one family. Today, the organization she founded has helped more than 150 formerly homeless youth in Florida’s Hillsborough County find a home and build a foundation for a successful future. Some are the first in their family to graduate from high school and most are the first to graduate from college.
She hopes to increase that number by expanding its Hillsborough County facility and opening another facility in Pinellas County with the $350,000 grant from the Humana Foundation that her nonprofit recently won.
“Florida has the highest number of unaccompanied youth in the country,” said Sokolik. “There were 9,000 that were counted in the state of Florida. The need is remarkable.”
In addition to providing shelter, food, medical and dental care and tutoring, her program focuses on the long-term future of the students and the future of their children. Its push to pursue higher education is showing amazing results.
“One hundred percent of our kids the past three years have all gone to higher education with scholarships,” she said. “They will be our leaders.”
Gaining stability, structure, a place to live and losing the daily stress of wondering whether you will make it through another day enables the students to focus on their studies and a brighter future. But Sokolik believes that matching the students with a mentor who becomes a part of their daily life is a key to the success of the program. The mentors have daily contact with participants and become an advocate for them. They also take them on regular outings and expose them to new experiences, whether it’s going to a restaurant, taking a shopping trip or attending a play or concert.
“A lot of students have not had a reliable person in their lives,” she said. “It’s empowering to know someone cares and is always there.”
Mentors are asked to make an 18-month commitment to the program, and Sokolik said “they don’t leave and often form lifelong relationships.”
Sokolik said that beyond raising her own two children, Starting Right, Now has been the most rewarding experience in her life. She said that attending every graduation is her reward for giving hope when it might well have been lost forever.
“You may think that working alone as one person, you can’t make a difference,” said Sokolik. “But one person CAN make a difference. Even if you change one life – it’s impactful. Never say never.”