Robbi Jones might be young, but the Jacksonville teenager knows helping others has no minimum age requirement

"I was at a rocky time in my life. I needed something to do, to actually go out and be relevant because I felt as though I really wasn't doing anything in the community. I wanted to make a change if I could …" the 16-year-old Stanton College Preparatory School student said of joining nonprofit I'm A Star Foundation two years ago.

Now a teen servant leader, Robbi and her peers are working to try to ensure that no Duval County student goes homeless. They're also demonstrating, community leaders say, that Jacksonville youth have the compassion, determination and skills to contribute and help make the city a better place.

"I thought 'wow,' there are so many problems we can fix, and we're doing it," Robbi said as the foundation kicked off Jacksonville HELPS (Homeless Students Empowered through Leadership, Partnership & Service) Week on Saturday with its "3000 for 3000 Moment of Hope" gathering.

The gathering at Hemming Park honored the 3,000-plus homeless students currently in Duval County Public Schools. A student is deemed homeless if he or she lives in a shelter, a motel, with relatives or friends or on the streets.

"There are 3,300 homeless students and they are in every school in Duval County basically," said Betty Seabrook Burney, founder and executive director of I'm A Star Foundation. 

Spanning 3,000 seconds or 50 minutes, the gathering focused on  homeless students in an effort to spark change by engaging adults as well as teenagers.

"Our goal for this is basically to raise awareness and to show students who are homeless and in transition that we care. That the community cares. … We're here to raise awareness and to give hope," said Burney, a former chairwoman of the Duval County School Board. 

Neither Robbi nor anyone in her family has experienced being homeless. But it's a situation she said  that touches many students who typically don't want anyone to know they are homeless. What's important is that those students know people care about them, she said.

"Even if weren't my story to tell, I would still want people to know that no matter who you are, no matter what you go through, if there is a problem, we want to help fix it," Robbi said. "So, if you are too shy to tell us, it's fine. But we just want you to understand that we want to help."

Burney said the number of homeless students has has grown since the Great Recession.

"I also think it started because one incident can cause somebody to be homeless. A house burns down, somebody loses a job, those kinds of things," said Burney who served on the School Board eight years.

Burney noted the school district gets some government funding to help homeless students, but it's restricted as to what kind of assistance the money can be used to provide. The foundation can help fill in the gaps by providing gift cards for things a homeless student might need but school district money can't provide.

Duval County schools Superintendent Diana Greene was among the speakers Saturday at the gathering that featured choral, creative dance and spoken word performances, a yoga session, a ribbon-tying ceremony and a writing/hand printing on the "Wall of Hope."

Noting it's disconcerting the district has so many homeless students, Greene said the gathering should be a stepping stone on the path "to stomping out homelessness."

"We need to work to continue to help our students, to help them with resources, support and keep them in the forefront," said Greene, who praised the I'm A Star Foundation youth for their "character, integrity and compassion" in working to help their follow students.

Established in 2010, the foundation is composed of students — ages 12 to 18 — who develop solutions to improve their communities. The foundation's name is an acronym for “Smart, Talented And Resilient” students. The foundation annually selects 35 volunteer student servant leaders from Duval middle and high schools.

"One thing Ms. Betty [Burney] always told us is that no matter how small you are, you always have a voice. And we should be using out voice no matter where we are, no matter who's around and that as children we probably have a better chance of getting our message out than any adult," Robbi said.

Jacksonville HELPS Week will conclude with the annual Celebrity Basketball Game fundraiser 6 p.m. Saturday at Paxon School for Advanced Studies, 3239 Norman E. Thagard Blvd. The matchup features high school all stars playing against celebrities. Proceeds will be used to help homeless students. Tickets cost $5 and can be purchased at imastarfoundation.org.

Since 2012, the foundation has raised a total of $96,500 via live telethons, a 5K run and three celebrity basketball games —  donating all the money to the Duval County Homeless Education Program. The foundation has award more than 20 scholarships to homeless students entering college.

For more information, www.imastarfoundation.org.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075