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USF students partner with the homeless to lend tutoring, hope

TAMPA — The University of South Florida student and the homeless Haitian immigrant sat on opposite sides of the desk, working together on a geometry problem.

The young Haitian woman, who says her mother brought her to the United States at age 16 and tried to force her into prostitution, was struggling with the math section of her ACT test prep book.

The USF student, a physics major who hopes to become a researcher, showed her how to use a trigonometry law to find the length of the side of a triangle.

And for a moment, they were both just students with few differences between them.

"We all deal with the stress of preparing for a test," said Courtney Halpin, 21, one of about a dozen USF students volunteering in a new partnership with the Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Program through Hillsborough Kids Inc. The nonprofit agency oversees the care of abused and neglected children in the county.

The USF students plan to meet with the homeless students— some in high school, some seeking their GEDs — twice a month, holding tutoring sessions and life-skills workshops on subjects including nutrition, health care and career planning at the Hillsborough Kids Activity Building (known as the Family Place) on N Florida Avenue.

The goal is that the homeless will soon make it to college, too.

Without positive role models, many could instead end up in the welfare or criminal justice system, said Jeanine Bedell, spokeswoman for Hillsborough Kids.

"We're trying to get them on the right path and also give them the tools to succeed," Bedell said.

It's one thing to give homeless youth a place to live or to enroll them in school, but without coping skills, they will miss out, she said. "We're trying to bridge that gap."

Last year, the Hillsborough County school system reported 3,827 homeless children, including 80 who were "unaccompanied," or rather not under the supervision of parents or guardians.

About a dozen came to the first meeting in late October with the USF students, who are all members of the university's academic and service-minded Kosove Scholars Society.

Halpin, the society's president, said the group typically volunteers at a different organization each month. This new partnership feels more meaningful, he said. It will continue through the end of the school year, he said.

"At the end of the day, I just wish we could devote more time to it," Halpin said.

As does 20-year-old Cherline Francois, the young woman from Haiti who got help from Halpin on her math problems.

Francois, who is seven months' pregnant and staying temporarily in a rented room in the university area, caught a bus to make it to the workshop last month. She has dreams of going to the University of South Florida, herself, and eventually becoming a nurse.

"It was a good experience," Francois said of the tutoring session with Halpin. "He was so patient with me."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or 813-226-3337.

USF students partner with the homeless to lend tutoring, hope 11/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 17, 2011 6:05pm]
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