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Chronically homeless teens find a fresh start with Tampa Bay nonprofit [Audio]

Megan Holmes

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Click the arrow above to listen to the complete interview between St. Pete Catalyst Publish Joe Hamilton and Starting Right, Now founder and executive director Vicki Sokolik.

There are more than 6,000 homeless students in the Tampa Bay area. Starting Right, Now (SRN) services just one sliver of that population – unaccompanied youth. These students, age 15-19 years old, are not living with parents or guardians, and are not eligible for foster care because they chose to leave their dangerous home lives. Often, according to Vicki Sokolik, founder and executive director of Starting Right, Now, these kids are stuck couch surfing for weeks and months at a time.

Until they’re found by Starting Right, Now. The organization, a private nonprofit, operates in Pinellas and Hillsborough public schools. With campuses in both counties, SRN has served more than 200 students so far. It seeks to help runaway teens through holistic services, understanding their stories, to get to the root of why they’re not living at home, and the underlying reasons for truancy or theft (the most common reason that students are referred to the program).

“We’re looking for kids who want a hand up, not a hand out,” said Sokolik. Upward mobility is the goal – one percent of SRN’s students go into the military, 9-11 percent to vocational school, and the rest to higher education.

SRN provides not just stability from chronic homelessness through housing, but “extreme” wraparound services tailored to the individual. Some teens have missed dozens of school days, requiring intensive academic services. Others have experienced trauma, neglect or physical/sexual abuse. SRN provides classes to teach life skills in everything from anger management to mindfulness and meditation. Students learn how to build healthy interpersonal relationships and even how to speak in public.

Mental health outcomes are equally impressive. The program has also been shown to reduce attempted suicide. According to Sokolik, most of the students in the program have attempted suicide at least once and been Baker Acted 1-3 times before being admitted into the program. Once they enter the program, the physical and mental health problems associated with their chronically stressful home lives or unstable housing situations begin to dissipate.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic, however, is SRN’s diversion record. Many students come to SRN after being adjudicated from the criminal justice system, usually for theft. Since its founding, SRN has not had a single student re-enter the juvenile detention system.

Sokolik attributes much of the program’s success (she and SRN were recently recognized by CNN) to its strong mentorship program and its ability to serve each student individually, based on their own needs. Unlike many other nonprofits, SRN is not beholden to the strings attached to state or funding, thanks to robust private funding.

To contribute to Starting Right, Now visit the website here. 

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