Friday, July 20, 2018
Opinion

Getting help to neediest children

There is nothing more important and rewarding than creating a pathway to success for a child. There is also nothing more challenging when the hurdles confronting many of our community's children are so daunting.

According to the 2012 report issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Tampa has the highest per capita homelessness rate in the nation. At last count, 23 percent of our community's homeless were children. Too many of these more than 4,000 children are slipping through the cracks, out of sight and out of reach of the attention and assistance they desperately need.

That became the mission of Starting Right, Now — to find these children, connect them with resources and support, and help them reach their academic and personal potential.

Founded in 2008 in Hillsborough County, Starting Right, Now has been a leading community partner in the struggle to break the cycle of homelessness, one child at a time. Our approach is unique, innovative, hands-on and, most importantly, successful.

Since the program's inception, we have served more than a hundred students and families with a remarkable 90 percent success rate. Just this year, 17 of our program's students beat the odds by completing high school and advancing to higher education or vocational training. You may have read in the Tampa Bay Times about a couple of our students, Terrell Jefferson and Randall Drayton. Both are amazing young men whose achievements are powerful and inspiring.

To achieve our outstanding success rate with our students, Starting Right, Now extends well beyond where most other programs go. We provide each of our students with housing, employment, other essential services and, most critically, a personal mentor. Our mentors provide our students with the influence and direction of a caring adult, helping them to take full advantage of what our program offers and to live up to its high expectations. The mentor relationship is also designed to instill in our students a sense of responsibility that is essential to their success with Starting Right, Now and in their adult lives.

The love and support from our mentors is what enables Starting Right, Now students to succeed. Our program's expectations for our students are not dissimilar from parents' expectations for their own children, and students who are selected for our program enter it knowing what is expected of them: school attendance, job punctuality, consistent contact with their mentor, sobriety and law-abiding conduct.

To strengthen and reinforce these expectations, Starting Right, Now and our students sign a contract so that we are mutually accountable to each other as well as to the community, our supporters and our funders. In most cases, we have found this mutual commitment to be positively reinforcing. Removal from our program is very rare, and it comes only after serious misconduct and repeated warnings.

As a relatively young and specialized organization, Starting Right, Now is constantly reviewing its policies and procedures. Two recent articles in the Tampa Bay Times have opened a community dialogue about the legal action the organization has taken against two students removed from the program. Community support and involvement are essential to the success of Starting Right, Now, and the discussion and input generated by these news stories has been valuable.

As a result, our nonprofit has modified its policy so that students who withdraw or are removed from the program will be expected to reimburse the program for only select expenses and property (not to exceed $2,000). This change eliminates any undue burden on a student while preserving the spirit of accountability that is central to the success of the program. Starting Right, Now will be applying this policy to all current and former students including those mentioned in recent articles.

As board chairman for Starting Right, Now, I am proud of our work in the community and of the children we have helped. I am confident that the organization's recent changes will enable us to be an even stronger advocate for homeless children in our community.

Matt Silverman is president of the Tampa Bay Rays and chairman of the board of directors of the nonprofit Starting Right, Now. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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