Category Archives: Central Florida Region

Transformation

Guest blog post by Myron Rolle, a Florida State athlete and student, Oxford graduate, Rhodes Scholar,  former NFL player, and advocate for foster children. He has held many Myron Rolle Wellness and Leadership Academy camps for children in foster care and today is holding the “Rhodes to Success” camp.

There was a small boy in foster care with glasses at one of the Wellness and Leadership Academy camps. He was small, diminutive, reclusive and not very social. I kept my eye on him all week and made sure he was encouraged to participate in the camp.  

Go team! Coming in as a group at the Myron Rolle Wellness and Leadership Academy.

Go team! Coming in as a group at the Myron Rolle Wellness and Leadership Academy.

One day, Rudy Ruettiger came to speak. He was featured in the movie “Rudy,” which details the Notre Dame football career of an underdog player who was dyslexic. Rudy fought to get in the game and made a great, famous play.

At the Q&A with Rudy, the small boy began asking Rudy questions – right in front of the entire group. He was confident, active and had a new self-awareness.

Climbing the rock wall at camp

Climbing the rock wall at camp.

The next day he was the only one to make it to the top of the rock wall. In a way it was symbolic. He had conquered his fears and his past. He was a new man. I ran over and gave him a huge hug and told him how proud I was of him for breaking out of his shell and overcoming his fears. He had completely transformed in just a few days.

I have never been a foster child. I cannot imagine the pain they have known. But I treasure the relationship that I, as well as my family formed with DCF years ago.

I dove right in, with the goal of finding out what made the kids laugh and forget their troubles, if only for a little while. I spoke with them about their dreams and their feelings to find out what I could do to offer them the most and help shape their futures.

Myron playing flag football with the campers.

Myron playing flag football with the campers.

The Myron Rolle Wellness and Leadership Academy was established as a means to instill within them the importance of education, a foundation of values, self respect, and the ability to better understand how to nourish and take care of themselves. I want this special population of young people to walk away with higher goals, better confidence and know that successful adults around them believe that they can achieve anything.

Today, 50 kids are at the “Rhodes to Success” event, which I hope will encourage the kids to aim high with their educations.

Campers dancing and having fun at a camp assembly - it takes a lot of courage to get up in front of a large audience!

Campers dancing and having fun at a camp assembly – it takes a lot of courage to get up in front of a large audience!

My time with the kids inspires me to continue working on my own football career and future work in the medical field. They have shown me that there truly is no limit to what we can accomplish.

 

Learning what true love is

Guest post by Merrilu Bennett, Communications and Media Coordinator at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in Central Florida, one of DCF’s community-based care organizations. The Children’s Home has been in existence for more than 100 years and provides residential, therapeutic, emergency shelter and foster care to hundreds of abused, neglected and troubled children from across the state each and every year.

Allen’s mother was a drug addict who had abandoned him numerous times during his young life. She would leave him with friends or relatives for months at a time. The last time she left him, she didn’t return.

When she was finally tracked down and contacted by authorities, she said she didn’t want him back and then she disappeared.  Authorities could find no friends or family members willing to take care of him. His father, who Allen has never met, was in prison.

Florida United Methodist Children’s Home

Florida United Methodist Children’s Home

So at the age of 7, Allen was placed at the Florida United Methodist Children’s Home in our residential care program in the hopes it would provide him with much-needed structure and stability. “Stable” and “structured,” however, are the last two words that could be used to describe Allen’s initial behavior. During fits of anger he would shove rocking chairs, benches and even a bicycle off the front porch of his cottage.

One morning, one of our staff members sat with Allen when he refused to attend school.  She explained to him that she wanted him to go to school because she cared about him and his future.  Between sobs, he exclaimed, “My momma cared about me, and she never made me go to school!”

Living with a drug-addicted mother who didn’t care if he went to school was all this fragile little boy had known as love. And he also knew that “love” had been taken away from him.  He didn’t know his mother’s behavior and his childhood weren’t normal.  It was all he had ever known. Our job here at the Children’s Home was to teach Allen what “normal” really was.

The transformation did not take place overnight, but over weeks and months noticeable differences in his attitude began to take shape.  He began to attend school without argument and also began to participate in on-campus activities like sports.

Today, two years later, Allen plays football with a league in the community.  He not only enjoys school, but also helps other young residents understand the material.  In January he was recognized as our “Resident of the Week” because of how helpful he is.

Allen is just one of the hundreds of children we serve who just need to know they are loved. It takes time and it takes patience.  It also takes an unwavering belief that we can make a difference. But seeing the children grow emotionally – and learn what true love is – is more powerful than any bumps in the road along the way.

If you are interested in mentoring a child, donating time or items, or becoming a foster parent, please contact me at Merrilu.Bennett@fumch.org. It is an honor and privilege to work with these children and to share their stories. We welcome all volunteers who want to make a difference in their young lives.

Editor’s Note: If you are interested in mentoring or fostering in other areas of Florida, please visit www.fosteringflorida.com to find a local fostering agency. 

Who am I? The identity challenge for sex trafficking victims

Guest post by Jesse Maley, founder of Out of the Life Inc., a Central Florida organization that helps women find freedom from the sex industry. OOTL provides counseling, therapy, career help, emergency services, housing, family reconciliation and justice system assistance.

One of the ways sex traffickers hold their victims captive is by taking away identification documents. Without their state ID’s, drivers licenses, social security cards and birth certificates, the victim does not have access food, clothing, housing or any other basic human need. Without identification they can’t register for school, get any kind of job, open a bank account or get an apartment.

The documents also allow the trafficker to get the victim’s food stamps, social security or disability payment and PIN numbers – things the trafficker will not give up.

As time in captivity continues, the victims are assigned “working names.”  These names are changed often and many victims claim that sometimes they had so many names they couldn’t keep them straight.  Their identities are as lost to them as their pride, confidence and self-respect.

All of this is happening right here in Florida.

In 2012, Out Of The Life Inc. helped many local victims reclaim their lives by:

  • Helping 20 survivors open new bank accounts
  • Providing job placement and career counseling for 22 women.
  • Enrolling three survivors of sex trafficking in local vocational schools
  • Helping 13 women pass their GED.
  • Providing housing for 13 young women who had nowhere else to go.
  • Assisting with re-entry services for more than 60 women who were in jail or prison
  • Providing too many bus passes to count so that these survivors have transportation to work and school.

Out of the Life helped this sex trafficking victim obtain housing, an ID, a bank account and a job. She is now working to become self-sufficient.

The most transformational experiences we have had were in the faces of the 130 women that we assisted in accessing one or more of their Identification Documents.  One young woman said it best when she opened not only her own birth certificate, but that of her 6-year-old daughter: “It’s like now I really exist!”

There a dozens of hurdles that service providers to victims of sex trafficking face when responding to a new case regardless of age or gender, but one of the most rewarding case management tools we can offer is the restoration of their identity documents.

Spread the word about human trafficking – let people know it is happening here in Florida and needs to be stopped. If you know of someone who may be a victim, call the Florida Abuse Hotline at (800) 962-2873.

My childhood does not define me

Guest blog post by Carmen, a former Florida foster child.

Carmen

My childhood was not the ideal one you would expect to have. But it provided me with many memories and experiences, good and bad.

I grew up with two brothers and a sister in Worcester, Massachusetts. We were raised in the projects and had very little. I remember as a little girl wishing I had the life of the kids in my neighborhood. They always seemed happy and alive.

My family and social environment was extremely dysfunctional. My earliest memories of my biological mother are very slim. I remember not feeling protected by her and feeling as if my siblings and I were always last to her. When I was 4, my sister and I went into one foster care home while my brother went to another. My mother was given numerous attempts to be responsible, but it was as if the concept of parenting and responsibility were foreign to her. Soon after that, my mother lost custody of the four of us, and my siblings’ father received permanent custody (he had adopted me when I was a newborn). We moved to his home in Florida.

It was at this point in my life that freedom and individuality stopped existing. My father was exceedingly abusive. He constantly engaged in impaired relationships with women who were vulnerable. They were beautiful and good women, but easily broken down like china glass. At the age of 7, I cleaned, hand-washed clothes, cooked and did yard work while the rest of my family did nothing.

I witnessed the continuous verbal abuse between my father and siblings. My heart broke everyday seeing my siblings get physically abused. My father would whip them with the belt, fishing pole, and more than often with his bare hands or fists. My siblings and I became each other’s protector.

My father soon lost custody of us, and as a result I went to live with my uncle. Living in a two-bedroom apartment with my uncle’s girlfriend, who gave me the responsibility of mothering her child and being her maid, did not last long. At the age of 12 I went into foster care.

Sister Dawn, Mum Linda and Grandma Judy with Carmen

This was the first time that I learned what family was about … what it stood for. I learned the importance of trust, loyalty, education and love from my foster parents.  I became part of a family that instantly valued me and took me in as their child … nothing less.

Through all these struggles, the important lesson that I have learned is that no matter what obstacles we may face, what truly matters is what we do with ourselves at the end of those obstacles.  If it weren’t for my unfortunate circumstances, my foster parent and family (I do consider my “family”), my siblings, and DCF’s Independent Living Program, I would not be the person I am today:  Compassionate, independent and dedicated to make a positive change in this world.

My advice to others who are going through struggles or have just overcome them is to never give up hope. Hope is what keeps us sane and enables us to dream and aspire. Hope gives us the courage to carry on.

A Team of Hearts

No child is ever unadoptable. Every child deserves a mom and dad. Even if they are only to be with us for a short time, they touch our lives forever.

Polk County child welfare professionals teamed up to ensure one local infant, born with medical complications that threatened her life, would fine a forever home. The newborn, delivered at Florida Hospital Heartland Medical Center in Highlands County, came to the attention of child protection officials after her mother relinquished custody through the Safe Haven Baby Law.

Traditionally, babies considered Safe Haven Babies are quickly adopted to potential parents already screened and awaiting a new addition to their family through private agencies. They do no enter foster care.  Safe Haven Laws allow mothers unable to care for their infants to leave newborns with a designated professional to reduce the risk of abandonment in an unsafe environment. As long as the newborn is seven days of age or younger and found in the care of hospital, fire station or EMS location, there are no questions asked of the parent, no repercussions, and the infant is placed with a loving family.

But with such a life-threatening diagnosis, private adoption agencies in this case were concerned they would not be able to find a new mom or dad in time, which is how the newborn came to the attention of child protection.

Employees from DCF and Heartland for Children, the Community Based Care organization overseeing foster and adoptive services in Polk County, were touched by the newborn’s story, refusing to accept that the tiny baby may pass without ever being part of a family.

Heartland for Children’s staff reached out to Nick Silverio, founder of Safe Haven for Newborns, a not-for-profit agency that promotes awareness about the Safe Haven Law in Florida. Mr. Silverio linked the team with Gift of Life, a private adoption agency in Pinellas County. Gift of Life staff immediately accepted the infant as well as support through the legal process. An amazing local couple with years of experience with children with special needs, came forward. The baby was named Maiya. She was also given the gift of family prior to her death on August 28.

Baby Maiya’s story is a reminder that there is a home for all children available for adoption.  It also serves as an example of the great lengths child protection officials go to help a child find the greatest gift of all – a family.