By Matt Wiley
The years spent getting an education in the public school system can be some of the most challenging for kids today. The pressure of trying to fit in, get good grades and make the most of those adolescent years in the classroom really takes a toll on many young people. But, try to imagine all those same challenges without a supportive family or a place to call home.
Skye Schmelzer can imagine it. Just a few years ago, she was couch surfing by night, taking International Baccalaureate (IB) classes at King High and working at Moe’s Southwest Grill, barely making rent for her and her mother.
Today, she’s finishing up her sophomore year at the University of Florida in Gainesville studying Chinese. In fact, she recently returned from a trip to China to learn Mandarin. None of the opportunities she has had would have been possible without the help of the Tampa Palms-based nonprofit group called Starting Right, Now.
Helping to end homelessness one child at a time since 2008, Starting Right, Now (SRN) earned the title “2011 Non Profit of the Year” from WEDU-TV (Channel 3), west-central Florida’s primary PBS station, during the annual WEDU “Be More…” awards in February, beating out other well known nonprofits such as the Glazer Children’s Museum and The Spring of Tampa Bay.
“We were very shocked,” says SRN founder Vicki Sokolik. “We’re so young and new that I thought for sure that wouldn’t happen. It was amazing.”
According to WEDU’s website, the award was issued by an independent judging committee to the group that best fulfilled the “Four Commitments to the Community,” including service to the organization’s constituency, level of community impact, financial viability and embodiment of overall community goodwill.
“It was really cool that the impact we were having on these students was powerful enough for someone to say, ‘Okay, you really are making a difference,’” Sokolik explains.
In addition to the recognition, SRN also received a $1,000 WEDU Community Investment Grant that it will use to help students in the program participate in extracurricular activities at school, such as buying cleats for soccer or football or paying travel costs.
SRN’s mission since its creation by Sokolik and her husband, Joel, in 2008 is to help stop the “generational cycle” of homelessness in which many homeless students and families find themselves stuck.
There are two sides to SRN’s program. The first helps homeless families get on their feet by providing deposits to get into an apartment, finding employment for parents and making sure their children go on to accomplish their highest level of education possible. SRN pays the security deposit and first month’s rent for families, giving them 18 months to pay it back, using money from the job that the program helped the recipient get.
The bigger side to SRN, Sokolik says, is the side devoted to helping the federally termed “unaccompanied youth,” or, kids who are in high school, but not living with a parent or guardian, and are homeless. Sokolik mentioned one case in which a student was sleeping in the woods near his high school in a sleeping bag every night, but still going to school every day.
Schmelzer also fit into this group.
While attending King, located off of Sligh Ave. on N. 56th St., and taking IB classes, Schmelzer was living on-and-off with her mother.
“I was living with my mother and we were very poor,” she explains. “We were in a very small apartment with a lot of animals. It was a very uncomfortable situation.”
Schmelzer also was working nights at Moe’s Southwest Grill at the Shops at Wiregrass Mall, while her mother was working at Taco Bell. Together, the two could barely make rent. Schmelzer says that her mother often asked her for money. She slept on friends’ couches even when she technically did have a home because, she says, she didn’t feel like she had one.
“I thought I was going to flunk out of IB,” she says. “I didn’t go to school for about a week and called in to drop out. The IB director begged me to stay. He said he had been in contact with someone recently, and that I would be a perfect candidate for that person’s program. I had no idea what he was talking about.”
That person was Vicki Sokolik.
A Whole New Life
A few days later, Schmelzer had an interview with SRN and its Board of Directors. Sokolik was one of the interviewers.
“I was accepted almost immediately,” she says. “I mean, the Board had to decide, but they basically looked at each other at the end of the interview and said, ‘Yeah, you’re a member starting right now.’”
Sokolik says that the program reaches out to students who are, like Schmelzer, referred to it by the Hillsborough County School District. She says it is generally a school social worker that first recognizes that a student is living on his or her own.
“(The program) is by referral only and we take a limited number of students each year, usually around 30,” Sokolik says. “Our program is not easy. You have to want to change your life.”
She explains that when considering students for the program, SRN looks at school attendance, test scores, life history and puts the applicant through an interview process. During the two interviews with the Board, members get a chance to ”get a feel” for the student. At the end of the interview, the student is asked what their three wishes would be. Sokolik says that if the student answers with basic needs, “you know they’re the ones you’ll be able to help.”
Schmelzer began the program during the beginning of her senior year at King. SRN set her up with an apartment off of 56th St. and got her a job at Smoothie King off of Fowler Ave., much closer to her school and new home than the Moe’s at Wiregrass.
“They paid most of my rent,” she explains. “I only had to pay about $90 per month. It allowed me to save some money for college.”
And college is what SRN is all about. “We are graduating 15 seniors this year,” Sokolik says. “All of them are going on to higher education on free rides.”
The rides aren’t completely free. SRN helps students fill out financial aid forms and apply for scholarships to assist in getting them as much financial help as possible. Sokolik says that SRN works with the colleges to get the rest of the necessary funding.
Schmelzer was one of the first to go through the program and on to college. She applied to three schools (USF, UF and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte). She chose UF, where she is currently studying Mandarin Chinese. Through UF’s Study Abroad program, and with the help of SRN, Schmelzer was able to travel to China during the summer of 2011.
“I basically said I wanted to learn Mandarin Chinese and I’m going to go to China,” she explains. “UF is really good about study abroad programs and making sure that any student who wants to, will. I learned a year’s worth of Chinese over the summer. I got to stay in Chengdu in the Sichuan Province and it was phenomenal. I honestly wouldn’t have been able to do it without SRN.”
Schmelzer says that she had to apply for a grant and a loan from SRN for the trip, both of which she qualified for and received.
“They’re always there to support me,” she says of SRN. “It’s not a handout. I have to work for it, obviously. I know that if I ever stop working, they’ll stop supporting me, but that’ll never happen because I’m so driven. They have faith in me. They see the progress (I’ve made).”
Things weren’t always like this for Schmelzer. Even after SRN began helping her, life wasn’t easy. She still worked until 11 each school night before going home to do IB homework until 2 or 3 in the morning, only getting a few hours of sleep before having to be up in time to catch the bus at 6:30.
“That was really difficult, but at least I was in a better place,” she reminisces. “I was coming home to independence, instead of negativity.”
She sometimes would miss the bus and have to call people she barely knew from school to try to get a ride, which she called an “awkward experience.”
“Most of the kids I went to school with were very privileged,” she says. “They had supportive families and were upper-middle class. Everybody has their problems; problems are relative, but none of those kids were at risk of being homeless, so they didn’t understand, and I got made fun of a lot for it. It was really hard to go through that and not have one person my age that was willing to help me.”
Luckily, SRN was, and still is, there for Schmelzer. Students in the program are given an adult mentor whom they are required to talk to every day while in the program.
Schmelzer still speaks with her mentor at least once a week, even though she is no longer with the program as a high school student. Mentors take the students on an “experience” once a week that can be something like going to the circus, or something as simple as eating at a restaurant.
Sokolik says that the program also requires students to attend school every day, take leadership classes, work 20 hours per week and go to therapy. “It’s intense,” she says. “But it works.”
The program started when former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio heard that Sokolik and her husband were helping one homeless family per year get back on their feet and help the children of those families reach their highest level of education possible. They had been doing so since 2001.
“We had been doing that for about five or six years not even thinking that there would one day be a nonprofit attached to this,” she says.
Iorio asked if Sokolik would do what she was doing citywide if a Board of Directors was organized for it. Five years later, the Sokoliks are still doing it, but on a much grander scale. The SRN Board is a who’s-who of big names from around the Tampa Bay area, including its chairman Matt Silverman, the president of the Tampa Bay Rays, current Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, as well as other prominent business leaders.
Vicki and Joel have been living in Tampa Palms for more than 17 years and decided that this was the area for SRN to call home, as well. Their work has changed the lives of more than 100 families and students since 2001.
“It’s black and white with us,” she explains. “There’s no gray area. We take these students, help them meet their education potential and we propel them to whatever that may be. At the end of the day, they end up getting educated and actually stop the cycle of homelessness. We completely change the direction of their lives.”
For more information about Starting Right, Now, visit Starting RightNow.org, or call 760-5472.