TAMPA, Fla. - Twenty-year-old Kelsey Mitchell is a sophomore at Florida State University. Her trips home from Tallahassee always include a visit with her heroes in Tampa. They are Doctors Caitilin Martini and Randy Feldman. They met almost two years ago.
Like many victims of domestic violence, Kelsey’s mom and her children had gone years without seeing a dentist. The day-to-day struggle of a domestic violence relationship includes emotional and financially controlling behavior by the abusive partner. Doctor visits, where health professionals may spot the warning signs of abuse, often fall by the wayside. Kelsey, her mother and older sister had moved more than half a dozen times during Kelsey’s senior year of high school. Her complicated dental needs were on no one’s radar.
"She presented a very severe handicapping "malocclusion” which is a French word for an improper bite! Her teeth were twisted. She didn't have the ability to chew properly”, explained Dr. Feldman. Dr. Martini added “Kelsey has had root canal treatment. She’s had her wisdom teeth pulled." So far, these two doctors from Muscaro & Martini Dentistry and Feldman Orthodontics have provided Kelsey with $10,000 in dental work pro-bono.
When they met, Kelsey was a senior at Robinson High School and she was homeless. Her mother and sister had moved for an 8th time that senior year and Kelsey had stayed behind – determined to graduate from high school. “I wanted to be better. I didn’t want to be like my mom who is poor and broken”, explained Kelsey fighting back the tears. "Sometimes we had to have ‘the talk’. Do we buy groceries or do we use the money to pay the electric bill?' " recalled Kelsey.
The teen saw a high school diploma and possibly college as her chance to break the cycle of abuse in her family. She’d been living on her own for 6 months before school officials realized it. Kelsey stayed with friends, took the bus to and from school, and worked the night shift at a fast-food restaurant because it meant a guaranteed plate of food. Homework got done in class, between 10 hour shifts at Wendy’s and the 5 a.m. alarm for the school bus. Sadly, Kelsey’s situation is not as rare as you think. School officials even have a name for these teens – “couch hoppers”. They are teens without a safety net, not even foster care, to help.
Vicki Sokolik is the woman who first brought Kelsey to Drs. Feldman and Martini. Strangers at first, Vicki and Kelsey’s relationship started off on a bumpy road. Vicki walked in to Kelsey’s life one day at school after getting a call from officials at Robinson. The teen, practically invisible to most people around her, was now exposed – an unaccompanied minor – student by day and homeless by night. “It took us a while to get her to realize that she didn’t do anything wrong”, explains Vicki Sokolik of their first meeting.
“Kelsey didn't know we were coming to interview her. She was pretty shocked. Who are these people asking a million questions? She didn't even know why we were there”, explained Vicki, “She thought she was in trouble and wasn’t very kind about it.”
Small but mighty, Vicki was undeterred. She is the founder of Starting Right Now, a local charity responsible for helping 24 teens graduate from Hillsborough county schools each year. With more teens than available slots, Vicki learns about the students directly from teachers and principals at their schools. Each story, more heartbreaking than the last with domestic violence running through an alarming number of these cases.
“It cannot affect just one person in the family, when you're living with domestic violence in your home”, says Vicki. “It affects YOU too! You're beaten down and a word spoken to anyone else in that house, you attach to it too!"
Listening and nodding her head, Kelsey talks about her dad for the first time in our interview. "He didn't let mom have friends. She didn't have a job. He completely isolated her”, said Kelsey. “Kids have this idea of how a father is supposed to be, someone who is there for you... when the first guy breaks your heart or something like that. To see his behavior towards your mom, you and your sister – that is DEVASTATING! It's still something that I deal with."
She doesn’t have to be alone. Vicki and the everyday heroes she’s recruited to help, are her family now. And starting in January 2017, Starting Right Now Inc. will be able to help more homeless teens just like Kelsey. They’ll jump from helping 24 teens per year to more than 40 when they expand to include homeless teens in Pinellas county.
"My worst day doesn't look anything like their bad days”, says Vicki. “I look at them and think ‘Oh My God, they're so resilient!’ … These kids are MY heroes! "
Fighting back tears again, Kelsey says "I would like to think that I would’ve made it without her, but because Vicki chose me out of the 24 students, it completely changed my life!" Kelsey is now an A student at FSU, studying marketing and mastering her accounting class!“ Dr Feldman, one of her heroes, says “Nothing is stopping her now! The ability to use your talent, your God given talent to help, it makes a world of difference!” Dr. Martini agrees: “She (Kelsey) is so changed and confident! You can see how much she’s smiling now. It’s really rewarding to be able to do something that someone needs so badly. To be able to bring my team in on it, it’s very rewarding. We feel happiness and joy!”