100 Women Who Care supports homeless teen girls
A local nonprofit that shelters, mentors, and guides teenage girls forced to run away from the most harrowing experiences imaginable received over $16,000 to further its mission Thursday night.
100 Women Who Care held its first quarterly fundraising event of 2023 in the St. Petersburg Women’s Club’s historic ballroom. The organization’s search committee carefully selects three area nonprofits from 20 nominees, and attendees contribute $100.
Private and corporate donors also support its mission, and the organization continues growing. Lauren Brigman, co-founder of the St. Petersburg chapter, said she is beginning to look at larger venues.
That growth benefits the featured nonprofits, as Brigman and co-founder Christina Noordstar presented checks totaling $18,400 at the event. While all three organizations represent philanthropic causes, and each leader gave impassioned presentations on why their organization needed extra funding, Starting Right, Now (SRN) received the $16,400 grand prize.
“Almost 100% of the youth in our program have been raped in their home by family members,” said Vicki Sokolik, founder of SRN. “Without intervention, these youth will drop out of high school and likely become drug addicted, incarcerated or sex trafficked.”
Instead, with SRN’s help, they become doctors, teachers and productive members of society.
Sokolik began her presentation by relaying painful and shocking personal accounts of girls forced to run away from home. The first teen she described lived in a closet at the barbecue restaurant where she worked.
Their stories were part of college admissions essays that staff with SRN helped the girls write, one of many programming aspects. Sokolik launched the organization – the only of its kind in the state – in Hillsborough County in 2008. In 2016, former Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Mike Grego donated an unused facility so Sokolik could serve students across the bay.
When girls aged 15-19 flee tragic circumstances, they are ineligible for foster care since the Department of Children and Families did not remove them from those homes, Sokolik explained. The federal government classifies them as “unaccompanied homeless.”
“This is a social issue that remains an invisible national epidemic,” she said. “Our impact is significant.”
She has housed over 400 teens in the past 15 years. All graduate high school and receive case management until they complete their post-secondary education or enter careers.
Sokolik relayed that one girl recently graduated from medical school, and SRN officials helped with her residency application. She is now on her way to becoming a pediatric surgeon.
Sokolik described how SRN helps mold devoted, financially literate parents to end the generational cycle of poverty and homelessness. In addition, its work extends from Tampa Bay to Tallahassee, as organizational officials led initiatives to change 10 state laws that protect the youth they serve.
“And we won’t stop until all kids have a safe place to call home,” Sokolik added.
She noted SRN is the only organization in Florida that provides permanent homes to minors not enrolled in foster care. When Grego reached out on behalf of his students, Sokolik told him SRN needed a home in Pinellas.
He called the next day with five potential properties. After she chose a suitable location in St. Petersburg, Ajax Construction contributed $1.2 million for renovations.
Dozens of local government and business leaders now sit on SRN’s board of directors, and Matt Silverman, President of the Tampa Bay Rays, chairs its executive committee. Sokolik explained the organization is privately funded, as every teen has different needs and federal regulations are overly restrictive.
“Your funding will allow us to wrap our arms around more kids,” Sokolik said. “To give them unconditional love and the counseling they need and deserve. And most importantly – hope.”
The other winners
Thanks to the generosity of donors, two other deserving local nonprofits each received $1,000 Thursday night.
Barbara Rhode, founder of the Red Tent Women’s Initiative (RTWI), started the St. Pete-based organization 10 years ago in the Pinellas County Jail. She noted the female incarceration rate is up 700% – and 84% of those women were sexual trauma victims.
Her organization has served over 1,000 women in the past decade, despite pandemic restrictions shutting down jail visits for nearly two years. RTWI offers a comprehensive eight-week program that includes therapeutic discussions and hands-on activities proven to resolve trauma. It also instills life skills and creates “an oasis” amid life behind bars.
Melissa Greene made 23 trips to the county jail before Rhode intervened. She said Red Tent provided a safe space and “held my hand through some tough trauma.”
“I now have full custody of my children, and I’m the person they look to for everything,” she added. ” I’m able to be a reliable, constant love in their life – that they always deserved.”
Kristine Dowhan founded St. Pete Shush in July 2020, during the height of the pandemic. Since then, she has helped provide over 400,000 free books by transforming old newspaper boxes into Little Free Libraries in neighborhoods throughout the city.
She expressed her pride in the organization’s diversity and said its 60 locations in South St. Pete help narrow the literacy gap. Dowhan explained how the Little Free Libraries help address a lack of transportation to public facilities, and mobility issues for people confined to wheelchairs.
In addition, there is no expectation that children or adults will return the books.
“Every person should have equal access to quality literature and educational materials,” Dowhan said. “Every person should have the opportunity to feel joy in sharing literature with others.”
For more information on 100 Women Who Care, visit the website here.