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Starting Right, Now shines at WEDU's annual Be More Awards

Savannah Billet, a volunteer with the Beat Nb nonprofit, received the Be More Inspiring Rising Star award at the 12th annual WEDU Be More Awards on Thursday. Feb. 22. The emcees were Lissette Campos of ABC Action News and Jack Harris of 79WFLA radio. [Tacy Briggs-Troncoso, courtesy of WEDU]
Savannah Billet, a volunteer with the Beat Nb nonprofit, received the Be More Inspiring Rising Star award at the 12th annual WEDU Be More Awards on Thursday. Feb. 22. The emcees were Lissette Campos of ABC Action News and Jack Harris of 79WFLA radio. [Tacy Briggs-Troncoso, courtesy of WEDU]
Published Feb. 24, 2018

TAMPA — As she reflected on her latest Be More Award Thursday afternoon, Vicki Sokolik thought of some kind words a student once shared with her.

The text came moments after Sokolik, executive director of the nonprofit Starting Right, Now, had taken "her kids" through a four-day retreat to help reshape their emotional perspectives and strengthen their self-esteem.

Ms. Vicki, Thank you for this wonderful weekend. This made me feel for the first time that I truly have worth and I am really loved. I feel now I know I have a purpose. Thanks for believing in me.

At a camp near Paisley in Lake County, Sokolik and the Starting Right, Now staff guided the teens through physical and mental exercises that challenged them to acknowledge their fears, identify their shortcomings and realize their concerns mirror the worries of most people.

It was a helpful respite for the teens, each of whom had found themselves homeless because of abuse or neglect or because their parents or guardians were in jail. The retreat is just one part of a holistic approach that includes mentoring, tutoring and counseling.

As in years past, the kind words of the text confirmed the impact of her work.

In the message, Sokolik found not only affirmation, but energy — an enthusiasm that fuels her tireless drive more than 10 years after she launched the organization.

"It makes it all worthwhile," Sokolik said. "It just rejuvenates me and I want to give, give, give."

Sokolik's giving heart and her nonprofit's success helped create a first on Thursday. Starting Right, Now became the first organization to win nonprofit of the year twice at WEDU's prestigious Be More Awards. The organization took home the Be More Unstoppable honor before more than 450 people at the Bryan Glazer Family Tampa Jewish Community Center.

The nonprofit has grown significantly, now maintaining residential centers in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and boasting more than 200 high schoolers who have moved on to higher education.

Now, with the help of Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Chris Archer, the group also plans to replicate its model in Archer's native North Carolina.

"I am so honored to be the recipient," Sokolik said. "These kids are amazing and deserve this recognition. They have been tossed aside and now the community is saying they matter."

Thirteen other groups and individuals walked away with Be More Awards in a number of categories.

Local media personality and philanthropist, Mason Dixon nearly brought everyone to tears when he presented the award he sponsors for voluntarism, the Be More Involved award. After almost losing his own infant daughter to an accidental drowning decades ago, Dixon chose Water Smart Tots founder Kari Bahour for the award.

Bahour's mission is to eliminate child drowning in Hillsborough County through water safety education. She provides access to survival swimming lessons for infants and young children ages 12 months to six years whose families can't afford it or who have special needs.

Bahour started the organization after her son, then 16 months old, nearly drowned at a friend's pool.

"I feel like I related to him on a completely different level and I'm glad he believes and supports our organization," said Bahour, who's even more motivated after hearing Dixon's story.

"It's just ongoing validation. It's rewarding and feels absolutely amazing knowing you've made a difference. I'm humbled, it's an honor to even make it to a finalist, let alone to become the actual winner."

Another highlight of the ceremony was the Be More Inspiring, Rising Star Award, which recognizes individuals under 21 who have distinguished themselves as community leaders.

This year it went to Savannah Billet, a 20-year-old student at University of South Florida St. Petersburg who volunteers with Beat Nb, an organization that raises awareness and drives research for neuroblastoma cancer.

Billet became involved as an 11-year-old seventh grader after learning about founder Kyle Matthews and his son Ezra, who lost his life to neuroblastoma.

Over the last nine years, she has organized several fundraisers for the organization, including an annual fishing tournament that raised $5,000 last year. This year she hopes to triple that amount and has already received $5,000 in sponsorships without proceeds from the fishing tournament.

"We were amazed and thrilled to see her get it," Matthews said. "It's absolutely well-deserved. Savannah is always talking about Beat Nb and what we're doing, so it was really cool to be recognized alongside her.

"She's really different because she connects to the families and spends a lot of time getting to know them. It's more than just a cause for her, it's really something that personally touches her life."

The young activist said she was honored and thankful.

"This award is another thing that keeps me going. I'm not going to stop," said Billet. "My goal in life is to make a difference everyday."

Contact Ernest Hooper ehooper@tampabay.com. Contact Monique Welch at mwelch@tampabay.com.