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Project Heart aids county’s homeless students

MANATEE — For years, sisters Lacey Houston and Lateva Brown lived under the same roof in Bradenton.

But when their mom went to prison two years ago, everything changed for the teenage siblings.

Lacey, 16, moved to Lakewood Ranch with another sister.

Lateva, 17, moved to Oneco with her grandmother.

“We grew up together but had to split up for the first time for financial reasons,” said Lateva, who attends Southeast High School with Lacey. “Lately, we don’t know if we can pay for things we need.”

Thankfully, she said, the sisters recently got help from Project Heart, a federally funded program that provides educational support services to students in Manatee County who are homeless or at risk for becoming homeless.

Project Heart assists with school enrollment, transportation, supplies and other school-related expenses. The program, which, in this county, cost about $300,000 to run this school year, also offers emergency food packages, helps with career planning and assists with medical services.

“We want to make sure students are enrolled and that they are on time attending everyday,” said Deborah Bailey, Project Heart program manager. “The goal is to take away any barriers to prevent them from dropping out and not doing their best.”

Students who live in shelters, motels, campgrounds or who are “doubled-up” or are awaiting placement in foster care are eligible for Project Heart services, which started in Manatee in 1993.

Because of their living situation, Lacey and Lateva are considered “doubled-up,” which means they live with another family besides their own.

Project Heart social workers are helping about 1,400 children age 18 and younger this year in Manatee schools, said Bailey.

“A lot of these kids fall through the cracks because they aren’t identified or don’t want to be identified because of embarrassment,” said Veronica Bazan, a Project Heart home school liaison who meets with dozens of middle and high school students weekly.

Bazan said she gets referrals from both teachers and students, and monitors the children’s academic performance and living situations.

“Many of the kids don’t know where to turn,” said Bazan. “I’m their hook-up lady.”

On Monday, Bazan met with Lacey and Lateva at Southeast High to discuss their needs.

A varsity basketball player, Lacey told Bazan she needs prescription glasses for upcoming games.

Lateva was selected to represent Florida as a National Scholar at the National Young Leaders Conference this spring.

Neither of the girls has money, so Bazan told them Project Heart will foot the bill.

“Most people don’t realize they are here to help,” Lacey said after meeting with Bazan. “What I’m going through in my life, I need somebody to stand by me and help me be successful.”

“That goes for both of us,” said Lateva.

Alan Ramos, an assistant principal at Southeast, said he’s grateful for the program that has encouraged many students to continue their education after high school.

That’s the plan for Lacey and Lateva, who both want to go to college.

Lateva said she wants to be a nurse.

Lacy also wants to help people.

“I want to give back to the community, maybe be a case worker and help kids in the same predicament,” Lacey said, then looked at her sister and smiled.

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