MANATEE -- Noel Burke, 18, had to learn to be self-sufficient when she was 14.
Burke was 14 years old when her father hung himself. Her mother was in jail when he committed suicide.
Undeterred, the former Southeast High School student is going to the Manatee Technical Institute to earn a GED, and she has not given up on furthering her education beyond that.
Burke is now seeking a mentor to help her achieve a dream college degree in zoology or the culinary arts.
She said she hopes to receive backing from Project Heart, a Title X homeless education program of the Manatee County School District, which has been helping homeless or at-risk students since 1994 by providing backpacks, school supplies and clothing. Project Heart is rolling out a student mentorship program in January.
The program is headed up by Project Heart founder and school social worker Debo
rah Bailey and local entrepreneur Doug Phillips.
The pilot program will match six high school students with six mentors who will help them apply to college or technical school and mentor them as they earn degrees.
Burke is hoping to be one of the students chosen.
"I've been dealing with a lot and struggling lately," Burke said. "I've pretty much been on my own."
Burke said her mother was in her life for a while after she got out of jail, but she eventually had to go to rehab for drug addiction.
Burke's sister is in foster care, but she herself never got a case worker. Her brothers lived with step-grandparents, who Burke said wouldn't take her in.
"I've been on my own, I guess, couch-hopping for the last four or five years," Burke said.
Burke works two jobs, including one at a bakery, and it is not rare for her to work until 11 p.m.
"I want to take a faster way out, but I'm not going to give up on education," Burke said. "I want to have a full-time career. People tell me I'm making the wrong choice, but a lot of people don't understand because they have never been through that."
Burke said she is looking forward to the expansion of Project Hope.
"A mentor would help me figure out what to do," Burke said. "In high school, they teach a lot about basic stuff, but not so much about what to do when you're on your own. A mentor would help a lot in that case to figure out how to further my life, get into a career, have a budget and make my life stable."
Phillips said many students are eligible for the program, but Project Heart is selecting those already enrolled in school for the pilot. Phillips said these students are focused, although for them, college may seem out of reach.
Mentors are expected to meet with students at least twice a month until they complete their college or technical school education.
"It's a big commitment," Phillips said.
Bailey said eligible students for Project Heart meet the federal definition of homeless.
"It is for students who do not have permanent housing or are not in custody of a parent or guardian," Bailey said. "They might be self-supporting or staying with a friend. Mostly they are doubling up with someone or are staying in a motel or shelter."
Bailey said the mentoring program will target students too old to join Take Stock in Children, which has a waiting list for mentors.
"We are not duplicating something. We are supplementing," Bailey said. "It is specifically for homeless unaccompanied students."
To volunteer, Bailey said mentors must commit to helping a student have academic and emotional success.
"They must believe that they can help an at-risk student have academic and personal and career success," Bailey said. "We want our mentors to stay with the student for at least their first two years of college to make sure they make the transitions successfully."
Each volunteer candidate will be screened through the Manatee County School Board fingerprinting and background check system.
Bailey said, at $90 per screening, they only want to process volunteers serious about the long-term commitment. Project Heart is paid for through federal funding and community donations.
Phillips stepped on board after he met Bailey at a Kiwanis meeting in what he called a divine intervention.
Phillips, father of five boys, had been looking to get involved in a mentoring program for students since he founded his business training and mentorship company, Dosh Technology Partners LLC, with his wife, Shari.
"How do you give back?" Phillips said.
Phillips, who already volunteers for Take Stock in Children, said a mentor can help change the direction of a student's life.
"It can open up a new land of opportunities for them to become who they want to be," Phillips said.
Phillips said he relied on mentors while growing up, including football and lacrosse coaches and his employer at his first job out of college.
Phillips, 51, said he wants to ensure students have an earlier start with a mentor who will make them feel safe, cared for and encouraged.
'They might not have someone like that in their life," Phillips said.
Phillips, who also mentors business people, will be a mentor and help provide the three hours of training required for all Project Heart mentors.
"I wanted to take the concept of working with business owners to expand who they are and expose students to it early on," Phillips said.
Phillips said he would like to see the mentorship program grow to provide for every student in need, regardless of economic status.
Project Heart is working on providing another new facet where businesses or individuals in the community can sponsor Project Heart students who wish to attend Manatee Technical Institute.
"Many students drop out of technical school because they don't have the money needed to buy their supplies or uniform, and they're embarrassed to ask," Phillips said. "It would be anonymous, but students would know it was available."
Donations to Project Heart can be made throughout the year to the Manatee Education Foundation.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.