Valencia Students Unite Against Homelessness-The Orlando Times

The Orlando Times

Valencia Students Unite Against Homelessness


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BY JALESSA CASTILLO, TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORLANDO - Nearly 300 students who attend Valencia College are homeless.

To help raise awareness and provide additional resources to these youths, a group of honor students along with a Dean created the Valencia College Homeless Initiative.

It all began with the Honors in Action research program which was conducted in Fall of 2016. Their vision was to coordinate a program that impacted their honor society, college, community, and region. They used different Valencia statistical databases and other resources in the community to discover how many students were victims of homelessness. The two questions they posed to themselves during the process were whether it was a right or a responsibility (1) to have an education (2) for them to enable others to have access to education as they did.

They found that in order to contribute to the development of not only their college, but also that of the Orlando Community and beyond, they must change their attitude toward homeless students and provide them with better opportunities to have a brighter future.

For of this project, Dean Leonard Bass, John O'Keefe, Bruno Basso, and Michael Onuchovsky created Valencia's First Annual SleepOut for the Homeless, as part of the Valencia College Homeless Initiative. It has an educational component which has been developed through awareness and reflection.

“We determined that there significant amount of homeless youths that are not getting the correct resources and awareness that are needed,” said co-creator Michael Onuchovsky, president of Phi Theta Kappa. “So we created a big awareness initiative on campus to enlighten the student body about how many homeless youths we have in Orlando and how many we have in Valencia and helping them to understand that there is a bigger problem at hand and that we really need to put some more effort and resources and energy into the homeless youth, especially at Valencia.”

The event is being organized and hosted by the Valencia East Campus Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), Alpha Gamma Omega. The organization started in 1918 and is a non-profit international honor society for community colleges. There are about 300 chapters, all of which inspire scholars on the basis of four hallmarks: Scholarship, Leadership, Service, and Fellowship.

The local officers are President- Michael Onuchovsky, Executive VP- Matt Stooksbury, VP of Scholarship- Kyle Sizemore, VP of Leadership- Matt Villeneuve,VP of Service- Kayla Esquivel, VP of Fellowship- Vanessa Ramirez, Senator of Finance- Ariana Trenary, Senator of Communications- Emily Reyes, Senator of Membership- Maya Alvarez, Fundraising Chair- Damian Laroque, and Webmaster- Anjelica Powell.

The funds raised at the SleepOut will go the Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth, to help renovate their GED program so they can send more students have the access to higher education at Valencia. They need $10,000 so the event has a goal to raise $7,500 since last year they raised $2,500.

“I currently serve on the Board of Directors for Covenant House Florida,” said Dr. Leonard C. Bass, Valencia Campus Dean for Learning Support, East Campus. “I became involved with this organization four years ago out of a desire to improve the lives of students who are experiencing homelessness. Many of the students that I have met at Covenant House are like any of the students I teach and work with every day. They have wonderful dreams and lofty goals, and simply need a supportive learning environment and guidance to achieve them. The PTK Vice-President, Bruno Basso, became aware of work with Covenant House and approached me last year asking if I would assist him in developing an awareness campaign at the College. He wanted to create more supportive services for homeless students attending Valencia. Our discussions, and partnership with Covenant House, led to the Annual Student SleepOut.”

Last year’s SleepOut was April 3 at the East Campus. About 85 students slept out and 250 students, faculty, staff, and community members attended the event.

“Witnessing the issues that affect this demographic was not only humbling, but also inspirational,” said Ashley Reyes, who attended the SleepOut last year. “I strongly encourage everyone in the immediate community to get involved: donate, visit your local homeless shelter, or host a sleepout in your own neighborhood!”

The 2017-2018 vision is to significantly increase not only the number of those who attend, but also the amount of funds generated to make a positive change. They want to impact all of Central Florida this year with a more openly advertised community wide event.

“I encourage people to help out, just come out and see and understand what we are trying to do,” said Maya Alvarez, Valencia Sign Language Interpreting Major and PTK Officer.

The Second Annual SleepOut will take place on March 5th at the Valencia East Campus Mall Area. Sign in begins at 5p.m and the formal program will last from 6p.m. to 9p.m. This will include tabling from various business and campus resources, food for the sleepers, a candlelight vigil, a silent auction, and guest speakers. The speakers include: Campus President, Dr. Stacey Johnson, Associate Executive Director of Covenant House Orlando, Maria Shorkey, local students, a Music Performance by Sid the Singer and more.

In addition to the silent auction, which will offer Solar Bear tickets, baskets, Orlando Magic Tickets, a parking pass, and more, they will be raffling two items, a 3-credit hour summer course and a TV.

Sleeping lasts from 9p.m. to 6:00a.m. and each person will be given a sleeping bag, a plastic bag, and a cardboard box to receive a glimpse of one night of what it’s like to be a homeless youth. A reflection period is scheduled for the following morning from 6:00a.m. to 6:30a.m.

The experience is open to students, faculty, staff, community members, 18 years old or up.

“Seeing the faces of those who have been impacted by this has really touched me,” said Onuchovsky. “When you think about the students who are homeless youths we have really identified them as the invisible student because you don’t know who they are. They are going to go home to that struggle and nobody is going to see that, they won’t have a home to go to, or they go to transitional housing, or they go to sleep in a car or under a bridge and you won’t know that. The more awareness we can bring to this topic the more resources that will be created and provided for homeless youths.”

When they created the SleepOut they identified “5 pillars” that are the main struggles for homeless youths: Mental Health, Housing, Education, Human Trafficking, and Food Insecurity. During the week of February 26th, leading up to the event, they are hosting daily workshops to bring light to these pillars.

Monday is Mental Health which will include guest speakers Valencia Counselors Andrea Bealler and Rafael Davila; Tuesday they are talking about housing initiatives by the Covenant House via its representative, Libby; Wednesday is focused on education and educational opportunities. Dean of Learning Support Dr. Leonard Bass will help students to bridge the gap between being uneducated, getting a GED, and attending Valencia; Thursday will address Human Trafficking which will include visits from Exec.Dean of School of Public Safety Dr. Jeff Goltz and two experts on the subject; Friday is about Food Insecurity which will be led by Nutrition Professor April Engel..

“Personally, before I moved to Florida my family and I were living on my aunt’s couch so I know the struggles of being homeless. I know that life can be really hard and I think that nobody should be too afraid to ask for help,” said Alvarez. “I think it’s such an important ideal to realize that even if you are in that situation you’re not by yourself, you always have somebody behind you. We hope that people realize that we have that support for them if they need it.”

They have also hosted a Food Insecurity Banquet and a Thanksgiving dinner for homeless and international students. To help their cause attend the SleepOut or donate at https://www.crowdrise.com/second-annual-valencia-sleepout/fundraiser/Valencia-WallSt