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Duval Teens Raise $37,000 To Help Homeless Students Go To College

Lindsey Kilbride

While some Jacksonville teenagers are worrying about who will ask them to prom or what car they’ll get on their birthday, others are just hoping they’ll have a bed to sleep in.

Tabitha Cobb and Zina Simpson both just graduated from Duval County Schools and are planning for college this fall.

Cobb will be off to the University of Central Florida where she’ll be majoring in psychology. She says she wants to open her own practice and help children.

Simpson was accepted to Florida A&M in Tallahassee. She also wants to help people as a registered nurse.

But Simpson doesn’t know whether she’ll be able to afford the move, tuition, textbooks and housing. Simpson is considered homeless.

About three years ago she says her mom took her and her siblings to a McDonald’s and told them she was leaving town.

They moved in with their aunt. Simpson’s aunt had no records for Simpson or her siblings, so they became considered homeless under the school system.

“Our guardians really had no guardianship over us,” Simpson said. “So that's how we became homeless and they literally started from scratch with everything with us. Food, clothes, we had nothing.”

Simpson says money is really tight at her house.

“No one has a room by themselves,” Simpson said. “It’s literally like nine of us in our household because we have such a big family. Of course I know they can’t pay for me to go to college.”

Simpson is one of 10 Duval seniors who were given $1,000 scholarships. The money was from other teens.

Simpson says when she heard the news, she couldn’t believe it.

“I'm about to cry now just thinking about it because I didn't know them and they didn't know me and the fact that they really think about me, that was beautiful," Simpson said.

The money comes from a program called H.E.L.P.S., which kids formed to help homeless peers.

H.E.L.P.S. is part of the I’m A Star Foundation, a problem-solving group for kids ages 11-18.

H.E.L.P.S. co-chair Tabitha Cobb says the founder of I’m a Star, Betty Burney, showed them a video about a homeless Florida teen and then, “she told us to come up with a plan to help them,” Cobb said. “So we're sitting here with like no direction and she's telling us to come up with this on our own.”

And they did. They held a telethon, visited churches, held fundraisers.

“‘What about a basketball game where local celebrities play students?’ So then boom, you had your celebrity basketball game,” Cobb said.

The kids from H.E.L.P.S. had everyone from Duval School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, to Mayor Alvin Brown playing a game of basketball against high school students, and raised about $7,000.

This year H.E.L.P.S raised $37,000; $10,000 went toward scholarships, and the rest was donated to the county’s homeless-education department.

Cobb says the most eye-opening part of the experience was meeting students like Simpson.

“You never quite know who you're around,” Cobb said. “I've been going to school in Duval County for my whole life and I never knew that this problem was here and I just think how many kids have I sat next to, have I done a project with, have I talked to, have I eaten lunch with and had no idea.”

Simpson says, now that she’s been awarded the scholarship, she’s more optimistic about college.

“This program has let me put something toward it so why not fight the rest of the fight and do something for my dreams,” Simpson said.

Lindsey Kilbride was WJCT's special projects producer until Aug. 28, 2020. She reported, hosted and produced podcasts like Odd Ball, for which she was honored with a statewide award from the Associated Press, as well as What It's Like. She also produced VOIDCAST, hosted by Void magazine's Matt Shaw, and the ADAPT podcast, hosted by WJCT's Brendan Rivers.