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Starting Right, Now secures a home for young people near Bayshore

Vicki Sokolik hovered between unyielding gratitude and sheer joy Wednesday.

Sokolik, the executive director of Starting Right, Now, spent Wednesday officially assuming control of the old Haven Poe Runaway Shelter near Bayshore Boulevard. Under Starting Right, Now's watchful eye, the Tampa shelter will serve as an apartment complex for the unaccompanied youths her upstart nonprofit organization serves.

The students, who will soon call the complex home, will no longer live alone in apartments after being abandoned by their parents. Starting Right, Now's teens — good kids who through no fault of their own end up without a stable place to live — embark on a path of success by going through a holistic process that focuses not only on improving schoolwork but growing as a person.

In bringing about the needed stability, the nonprofit has put the kids up in apartments either by themselves or in suite-style units where they don't know their roommates.

"They end up feeling alone and if they feel alone, they're not going to do what they need to do," Sokolik said. "But when they see other kids and meet other kids overcoming the same obstacles they've gone through, it gives them the incentive to make their lives better."

At its new training center in New Tampa — another recent addition, thanks in part to a Bank of America Neighborhood Initiative Grant — the kids come in to get tutoring and learn about leadership skills. But they also come in to share in the camaraderie offered by the staff and the fellow students.

That sense of community will only grow in the apartment complex. It also gives the organization greater contact in a centralized location and allows for easier transport to events and activities, but it's the connectivity that excites Sokolik the most.

"So many things had to happen to make this come to life," she said.

Things like getting Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman to Starting Right, Now's annual luncheon. She attended in October with a subsequent meeting on her agenda that would force her to leave early, but she couldn't pull herself away after she began hearing testimonials from Starting Right, Now students.

"I could not leave," Murman said. "The stories — and the film we viewed — that was very compelling. Homeless youth are a very unique group of kids that are part of a larger group experiencing homelessness. What Vicki has done is tapped into the potential of that and given them the opportunity to succeed."

Kudos to Murman, who worked with the county staff to make the home available. Starting Right, Now will handle all the upkeep and improvements.

The home is the latest step in an amazing journey for Sokolik, who initiated Starting Right, Now just five years ago to help homeless families. The focus has since narrowed to unaccompanied youth, but the results remain impressive.

Nearly all of the kids touched by Starting Right, Now have rebounded from dire situations to go on to a university or tech nical school on scholarship. Not only are most of them first-generation college students, they are first-generation high school graduates.

We can only hope that when the organization looks to expand to other counties, it will find a community just as supportive.

That's all I'm saying.