Once homeless, now home for the holidays - FOX 35 News Orlando

Once homeless, now home for the holidays

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

Terrell Jefferson, a student at Florida A&M University, unpacked for holiday break. He then went into the living room and started playing a board game. Everyone was gathered sharing the holiday spirit.

It could be any home, but Terrell's home is special. It's filled with other teens who share a common bond - they grew up homeless.

The state took the 19-year-old from his mother when he was a baby because of her terrible drug addiction.

"And, growing up, my father was in prison most of my life," Jefferson said. "When I finally did meet my father, I was 18."

A few months later, his father died of cancer, leaving Terrell homeless and couch-hopping with friends and relatives.

It's Not Easy

A teacher suggested he apply for a program called Starting Right Now. He would either sink or swim.

"Because our program is hard," said Vicki Sokolik, who founded the non-profit in 2008. "It's not a free ride by any stretch of the imagination."

Starting Right Now is home to 24 teenagers at a time. They have to attend school every day and sign a contract to work 20 hours a week in a job that's assigned. They must clean their rooms and do their laundry. They are provided with a mentor, tutoring, room, and board.

Terrell flourished, graduated from high school, and received a full scholarship at FAMU, where he was a star on the soccer team last season.

The Kids and Their Kids

At the end of this school year, Starting Right Now will have helped 125 homeless teenagers. Not only do they get help to get through school, but in many cases, they find the family that they never had.

"These guys are like my brothers and sisters," said Terrell, who will spend much of the holiday break here at the Starting Right Now home.

Vicki talks glowingly of "her kids." Many are the first in their family to finish high school, and most are the first to go to college. Surprisingly, she said it's not as much about them as it is about their children.

"When they have kids and their kids have kids, they're not going to be on welfare, not on food stamps, not on Medicaid," she said. "That's when you're going to see the societal benefit from this organization."

Where to Now?

Starting Right Now's success with getting homeless kids into college has yielded a good problem to have. The students they've moved onto campuses would like to "come home" for the holidays, but space is tight.

Terrell is squeezed into an empty room, but others are put up at hotels. The Starting Right Now home is a former county runaway shelter, and there's room to expand. Vickie has started fundraising to turn an unused part of the second floor into a "Home for the Holiday" area for returning students like Terrell.

Changing Everything

I asked Terrell where he might have ended up had it not been for Starting Right Now.

"I would have ended up in jail or dead," he said. Now, he's loving college and playing sports at FAMU. He plans to become a nurse, or even a doctor. 

"Once I got to college, that's when it all hit me," he said. "You can really do what you want to do with your life."

For more information, visit www.startingrightnow.org

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