There’s no safety net for kids who aren’t removed from their homes but nonetheless can’t live there due to physical or sexual abuse, alcoholism, neglect, the incarceration of their parents or other circumstances. I founded Starting Right, Now to give unaccompanied teens a home and love. Thanks to our efforts, more than 200 kids in two Florida counties have completed high school and are succeeding in college, trade school or the military.
The problem I’m trying to solve
Across the country, more than 1.3 million unaccompanied kids can’t live in their homes. Some shuttle from one couch to another, others sleep on their high school’s track or football field or, as one did, they spend the night in a friend’s father’s car. Because they’re ashamed of their circumstances, these kids keep to themselves, often remaining invisible until they flunk out of school or turn to petty crimes. I started helping one child; now we house more than 80 kids in our two Florida homes and are piloting our model in North Carolina. We’ve also helped change the laws in our state that kept these kids from thriving — they no longer need a parent’s signature to get a Social Security card, a driver’s license or necessary surgery.
The moment that sparked my passion
My daughter was born with frontal lobe epilepsy, and although her doctors tried everything, they couldn’t stop her seizures. I decided that since I couldn’t fix her, I would help someone else. I started by bringing holiday gifts to homeless families living in motels; eventually I became a mentor to one of their high-school-age daughters. When my son told me about a teen in his class whose single mom was in prison, I knew I’d found my calling. The school district linked me up with numerous kids in similar situations, and in 2007 I founded Starting Right, Now, so we could handle more.
What I wish other people knew
It’s easy for outsiders to think these teens are bad kids. I know they are terrific, resourceful people who’ve been put in terrible circumstances, which sometimes leads them to make bad decisions. One girl stole tampons because she had no other way to get them; another prostituted herself every night to have enough money to eat. We make sure the kids have a place where they feel safe and loved. This changes them — 97 percent of our teens graduate high school, a remarkable figure when compared to the state average for this vulnerable population — and it also ends the cycle of poverty that would otherwise continue into the next generation.
Advice to others who want to make a difference
Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed by the extent of the problem you want to solve, thinking you have to change the world. Start in your own community, helping one person. In this way you are assisting everyone in that person’s orbit. I know people who have big ideas of what helping looks like, and what stops them is they don’t have the money or volunteers to accomplish that. Start small, solving just that day’s problems; the re-sources to do more eventually follow.
Why my approach is unique
Starting Right, Now offers full wraparound services: In addition to a place to live, we provide everything from homework help to college and scholarship application assistance, grief counseling, life-skills classes, mindful-ness training, mentorships and more. Other transitional homes exist around the U.S. for unaccompanied teens, but most provide housing for less than one month. Here you stay until you graduate high school — and even after, since we continually check their grades in higher education and, later, help them find a job. A pre-liminary study of our program at the University of South Florida found after just six months, our teens have more coping skills and hope, and less stress and depression. The accomplishments of our first cohort speak for themselves: They are a teacher, a registered nurse, a welder and an army officer; one works for a judge in Washington, D.C.; another is in medical school. Thanks to our program, these previously homeless, at-risk kids are living meaningful lives and becoming productive members of society.