Category Archives: Homelessness

Yards After Contact

Guest Post By Brittany GardenerBrittany Gardener

The Unconquered Scholars Program at Florida State University has been a tremendous blessing in my life. I’ve been around since the program’s inception five years ago, and I’ve witnessed the program’s tremendous growth and impact it has had on its students and the community. To use a football metaphor, every individual must maximize his or her “yards after contact.”

Life has its struggles and hurts, but I’ve learned along the way that even in the pain of life, there are yards to be gained. Our interpretations of events and our responses to them become the ideas that define us.

As I’ve matured, I’ve learned that we all face unique challenges and hardships. We are all on our own in this world, but the thing that most connects us is our stories and experiences. We can all admit that you don’t begin to come into the full knowledge of what you’re made of until you’ve had some encounters that leave you with no other choice but to be strong.

Each one of us can look at ourselves as players on the football field of life. Yards after contact are the yards a player gains after the player is initially hit. When I think of a running back, I think of the focus he must possess in order to gain yards after being hit by defensive players. I think of his relentless drive in spite of all the hits he takes. The running back is always running with aim; he is running to secure a first down that will ultimately lead him and his team to scoring a touchdown. Gaining that first down may seem like an insignificant accomplishment, but it is a small victory that contributes toward the ultimate goal of winning the game.

The ball is our purpose. The ball is our future. The ball is what Unconquered Scholars have held onto for so long. Some of my program peers were in foster care, others were wards of the state, or homeless. As for myself, I was in relative care. In the program, there are plenty of situations in which defeat was calling – challenges that were trying to snatch the ball out of our hands. Each Unconquered student has played the role of a running back. We’ve taken some hard hits; we’ve even had to stiff-arm some pretty scary situations. If we had stopped running, then we would have lost possession. We had to run with stamina and power because our future depended on it.

When I reflect on my own story, I think of my initial hit when my mother passed away unexpectedly, so I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I was just a freshman in high school. I had to be my own parent and take care of myself in all respects. One day when I was at school, I intentionally avoided my peers so that they wouldn’t see me crying. I felt myself breaking down inside. I raised my hand so that I could be excused. I felt alone; I felt as if no one understood the pain I was dealing with. I started to cry uncontrollably – the kind of tears that only come from the worst pain deep within. But in that very moment, I heard in my spirit a voice reassuring me that in a little while, things would get better.

Then I realized, life is about the small victories, that is, the yards you gain when you are experiencing adversity. I, for one, am so glad that I kept running. I’m so glad I had the courage to stiff-arm my hardships and to see beyond the obstacles. Through my mother’s death, I learned the importance of perseverance and what “yards after contact” really means. I advanced the ball because, unbeknownst to me, the opportunity to attend Florida State University would be only a few yards down the field. These extraordinary students shared in this video where they started on the field and where they are now because of Unconquered and the Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (C.A.R.E.).

VIDEO: The Truly Unconquered –  From Homeless Youth to College Graduate

Thank goodness all the other students in the program also advanced the ball so that Unconquered could open up a wide hole for us to run through. A hole was made by this program that allowed us to gain those tough yards. We kept on running with our future in mind and our purpose in our hands. Unconquered has been an invaluable support system for each of us. Without such a resource, our lives would in all likelihood have taken a drastically and tragically, different turn. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Unconquered Scholars Program, the C.A.R.E. Program, and our beloved Florida State.

I realized three years ago that attending college was going to be one of the most significant life transitions I would ever undergo. I knew the weight I would have to bear as a first-generation college student and as a student who had been in relative care. I did not know how I was going to pay for college, let alone what to expect once I arrived. Today, I look back at my initial hit. Today I look at where I started on the field. Today, I look at the yardage that has been gained by each and every student in this program. We’re not just running for ourselves; we are running for the future generation of students who will come after us.

In our lives, there were plenty of situations in which DEFEAT was once calling, CHALLENEGES that were trying to impede our date with destiny. But it took only ONE opportunity, ONE door opening, ONE yard- the Unconquered Scholars Program – to demonstrate what is possible when students are handed the right tools to go into battle against what seem like insurmountable circumstances.

In Unconquered, there are students who have not only dreamed, but have fought the good fight as well. Students who have had to ride through dark clouds, at times, unable to see the road ahead. I am talking about students who have managed to gain yards after contact in spite of life’s constant blows. I hope you can see and feel just how much strength, determination, capability, and resilience abound in this program.

For more information on the Unconquered Scholars Program, visit or contact Lisa Jackson, Assistant Director of the Unconquered Scholars Program at FSU’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement at or (850) 644-0120.

Brittany Gardener graduated from Florida State University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Marketing and currently serves in DCF’s Office of Civil Rights.


How a “Broken Man” got a new start at the RCC

Guest post by John Harker, current participant at the Tallahassee Renaissance Community Center. The center provides many services to the homeless, ranging from shower and laundry facilities to medical and educational needs.

A young man signs up to volunteer at RCC

I used to look like a skeleton. All I did was drink alcohol and not eat. The doctors told me I was bleeding inside and if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to die. But now, thanks to the Renaissance Center, my life is new and I’m grateful for the opportunity to get a new start.

I began drinking when I was 10 years old. My mother and father were alcoholics and they owned a bar, so alcohol was always around and available. I hit bottom earlier this year when I walked all the way from my daughter’s home in Midway to Tallahassee in order to get away from serious family problems.

I was homeless and had heard about the Renaissance Center, but I didn’t really know what it was. I just knew I had a lot of problems and I needed help, so I walked in. I was fed up with my life. I’ve tried so many other ways to stop drinking, too many to count. I was broken.

With the help of the Center, I took the first steps towards sobriety and self sufficiency. I worked to get an apartment through the “A Place Called Home” program with Ability 1st. I have a disability, so Ability 1st helped me figure out the process of applying for benefits. I went to a 12-step sobriety program. The encouragement of the Center’s staff helped me stay the course.

You’ve got to want help. I put all I had into learning how not to drink and how to live a new life. But I can have all this knowledge and it does me no good if I don’t use it. Wisdom is knowledge applied.

Now I’m proud of what I have accomplished. I’ve been sober a few months and I have an apartment now. I went to a graphic arts school and want to continue painting pictures, even if they are just to hang on the walls of my apartment.  It’s quiet around here, except on football game nights. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Center. Now I have a future.

Operation Santa “Cause”

A mother adopted four children, three of whom have since been diagnosed with Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), an inherited disorder. Two children have died. They are seeking help with funeral and Christmas present expenses. Details at bottom of this blog post.

Yard work for a disabled adult. Deposit money for a new apartment for a struggling family. A donated car for two former foster children. Holiday gifts for children.

These are just a few things that families in need across Florida are looking for this holiday season. We’re hoping to partner with community organizations to fulfill all of the wishes in our Operation Santa Cause campaign.

DCF’s mission is to help those most in need. That job is daunting. We investigated 188,000 child abuse cases and helped more than 62,000 children in child welfare last year. More than 4.8 million people receive public assistance, more than 52,000 Floridians were served in our domestic violence shelters, and more than 54,300 people are reported homeless.

However, the most exciting part of being in the business of helping others is when we are allowed the opportunity to witness communities helping their neighbors. Our Partners for Promise initiative, which kicked off one year ago, now has more than 1,550 local partner organizations signed up to provide real change in the lives of others.

Below are 12 stories from individuals and families in this state who need a helping hand this holiday season. These are 12 individuals or families whose challenges we have witnessed firsthand. If you know of anyone in your community who would like to make a difference this year, please contact us at the number provided below each story. We will then connect you with the local organizations making these wishes come true this holiday season.

The families listed below are just a small sample of the people in need this season. Contact your local foster agency to find out ways to help foster children in your area.

•    Leon County: A single mother of three who is currently homeless, is diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and her youngest is diagnosed with ADHD. Her oldest son serves our country through the U.S. Army and her second oldest lives with other family. She provides direct care for her youngest child who is 11 years old. The mother isn’t looking for a handout; she is simply looking for a helping hand. A home safe and secure and just enough for her family to live in, instead of with friends, in cars and in local shelters. She believes she can make monthly payments, but has no money to set up a new home.
Wish: A place that she, her son and her mom can call home. They need help with the deposit and initial rent – total $1,200.
Contact: Nicole Stookey, 850-488-0568, or

•    Escambia County: The Carver Community Center in Escambia County is 100 percent funded by community donations. The facility provides a safe place for children to go after school and during the summer, meals for 150 to 200 children each day, and also tutoring services for children year round.
Wish: The Center needs Internet service and 15 computers to replace the current computers that are old and very slow. To assist the children in developing reading skills, the Center uses “Ultimate Speed Reader” software. Each license costs around $35 and they need 15. The cost of a computer varies but is about $650 each for Dell All In One computers. The Internet service is about $100 each month.
Contact: Nicole Stookey, 850-488-0568, or

•    Jacksonville area: A single mom works full time and takes care of her 18-year-old son who has Muscular Dystrophy and hearing loss. The mom strives to meet the demanding needs of having a special needs child. She recently was advised that her son’s teacher had been working with him using an iPad and that he had really developed an interest in using it. They now believe that it would be beneficial as a new way for him to communicate. It could open a whole new world for him. Such a potentially useful piece of technology is not funded by insurance, supplied by the school or affordable for the family themselves, so obtaining one is difficult.
Wish: An iPad for this amazing young man to call his own.
Contact: John Harrell, 904-723-5470, or

•    Marion County: A disabled adult needs a new roof for her home and is unable to afford the cost. Her roof leaks severely when it rains and as a result the home has active mold. This is detrimental to the client’s health as she is on oxygen due to respiratory issues.
Wish: An organization or group of individuals willing to assist with repairing her roof and removing the mold. Estimated cost for roof repair is thousands of dollars. Professional skills could also be donated.
Contact: Kristi Gray (407) 317-7042 or

•    Orlando area: A woman adopted a sibling group of four several years ago. At the time of the adoption, she knew one of the siblings passed away from a degenerative brain disorder. Since that time, three of the four children have been diagnosed with Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), an inherited disorder, and almost always fatal within 10 years of symptoms. In January, one of the children died at the age of 13 and in October, the 8 year old passed away. The mother lost her job and has since taken a pay cut working a job from home to continue to care for the other two children.
Wish: Provide holiday joy for the two children that are still in her home. Financial assistance to alleviate the outstanding $1,700 in funeral expenses, $500 to cover the cost of the family’s holiday gifts on layaway at Kmart.
Contact: Kristi Gray (407) 317-7042 or

•    Orlando area: A single mother of four children between the ages of 2 and 14 has no car and travels with all of her children by walking or public transportation. She currently works in a plant nursery. She is a humble, hard-working mother who is grateful for the opportunity to work and provide a safe home for herself and her children. These hardships have not prevented her from ensuring her children attend school regularly.
Wish: Child care for the younger siblings would help and ensure they are in a safe and nurturing environment while their mom is at work. A licensed child care facility could donate up to a year of care. Or an organization or individual could provide financial assistance to keep the children in quality child care.
Contact: Kristi Gray (407) 317-7042 or

•    Polk County area: A disabled adult would benefit from someone helping to maintain her yard. Her grass is not yet a code violation, but there are very unkempt, high weeds and there are bushes that need to be trimmed away from doors and windows.
Wish: An individual or organization willing to donate lawn services.
Contact: Kristi Gray (407) 317-7042 or

•    Hillsborough County: A young single parent with two small kids who is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is now living in a roach-infested and crime-ridden apartment complex because she is struggling to start her new life here in America. She is working at a local hotel and very involved in a local church and is an incredible example of resiliency.
Wish: She and her family have identified a possible house to rent. To make the move, they need help with the deposit, first month’s rent and transferring utilities. A total of $2,500 would cover costs.
Contact: Teresa Durdaller, 813-337-5854 or

•    Broward County: With each passing year, a 16-year-old boy’s dreams of finding a forever family dwindled. However, through the work of a team of persistent social workers and case managers, the young man’s older sister was identified as a possible adoptive parent. The new adoptive mom is 21 years old and is a former foster child herself. She is working to support herself and her 2-year-old son. Despite having a lot on her plate, she adopted her teenage brother. Since the young man has been adopted, he is thriving. However, transportation is a barrier. The case manager has worked with the sister to help her budget for fuel and insurance, but the cost of a vehicle purchase remains out of reach.
Wish: A donated car would put the icing on the cake so this newly reunited family can continue on their path to success.
Contact: Paige Patterson-Hughes, 954-202-3209, or

•    Broward County: Two sisters, one 16 and the other 13, are currently being raised by their grandmother due to their mother’s mental health and substance abuse issues. The family is living well below poverty. The 16-year-old has an emotional disability and the majority of her disability funds are used to help her grandmother pay rent and other bills. The girls slept on the floor prior to receiving beds from the community-based care organization ChildNet.
Wish: The holidays would be extra special if the girls could get a room makeover. The
girls need a dresser, curtains, sheets and other small items for their room. Estimated cost for the room makeover is around $2,500.
Contact: Paige Patterson-Hughes, 954-202-3209, or

•    Miami-Dade County: A single working mother adopted her nephew and another foster child. They are very good boys, very well-mannered and do well in school. The mother is struggling since her sister moved out and she cannot afford rent on her own. She has been looking for another place, but has not been able to find anything decent for the boys to live in and not disrupt their school. Even under these pressures, she continues to fundraise for foster kids and is a moral support to the foster and adoptive families that participate in the local foster parent association.
Wish: Rent assistance and holiday gifts for the boys. Rent for six months is estimated to be $6,000. Toys for the two boys are estimated to be $500.
Contact: Lissette Valdes-Valle, 786-257-5056, or

•    Miami-Dade: A 24-year-old father who grew up in foster care and was never adopted had a baby with a woman that had a drug problem. The baby was placed in the care of a foster parent when he was born. The foster parent co-parented with the birth father until he was able to get custody of his baby boy who is now 18 months old. The birth father is young and has no family support, but he is doing a great job caring for his son on his own. He is searching for a job but has not had any luck.
Wish: Calls from prospective employers about job opportunities would be welcome. Holiday gifts for an 18 month old and help with basic needs would also help to make the holiday special. Gifts $300; basic needs $1,000.
Contact: Lissette Valdes-Valle, 786-257-5056, or

Working together, keeping families safe

Guest post by Arlene Bettencourt, Hendry/Glades Manager with United Way/United Way 211 and a Kiwanis Club of LaBelle member. 

The other day we helped a young lady with disabilities who was literally fleeing from a home where she felt unsafe.  She came to the LaBelle United Way House by taxi, one of our 14 Houses in the Lee, Hendry and Glades counties area.

Our partners generously stepped up to help: The Hendry Glades Homeless Coalition put her up for a weekend, the police accompanied her home to get her belongings, Salvation Army provided her with food and United Way helped her get into low-income housing.

We helped her to see that she is self-sufficient on her income. Additionally, The Kiwanis Thrift Store provided free housing supplies and furniture as she had nothing.

Except for the police, all agencies work out of this United Way House and we were able to work together to help this individual gain independence and self respect. United Way Houses provide free space for agencies to meet with clients. The United Way House in LaBelle is a one-stop shop for residents that includes partnerships with 16 agencies.

This woman is now happy, self sufficient and enjoying life.  Her family lives in town, but she has the willpower to maintain control of her life and future.

If you or someone you know may be in need of help, please dial 2-1-1 to connect with the United Way.

No baby should have to go without diapers

Guest post by Judi, a homeowner in the Hunters Crossing neighborhood in Leon County.

Can you imagine … a baby without diapers? I have heard that one in five women in the U.S. cannot buy diapers for their child on a regular basis. For a third of U.S. women, purchasing diapers means cutting back on food or other urgent necessities. It breaks my heart that these children are suffering because their families are unable to meet even their most basic of needs.

So my neighborhood and I decided to do something about it.

My husband and I moved into a new neighborhood, Hunters Crossing, in North Florida last May. The neighborhood has several events throughout the year that helped us to quickly meet our new neighbors.  Several of us were talking one day and decided it would be good if our neighborhood planned some projects to help around our community.

We heard about Partners for Promise, a program through the Florida Department of Children and Families that connects organizations and businesses to members of their communities. I immediately called the North Florida contact person, Jeanna Olson, and set up an appointment.  Jeanna greeted me with pages full of needs and ways to help our community.

We decided to do a “baby shower” for the Brehon House, a facility in Tallahassee for homeless pregnant women and children.  She sent us a wish list, with diapers being the No. 1 item.  Our neighborhood was ON IT!  We donated more than 1,000 diapers in addition to baby wipes, toys and clothes. Some of us hadn’t shopped for babies in years – we had so much fun!

Through the many comments that I have received from my neighbors, one thing is clear: We feel like much better people because we are helping.  We are just one small neighborhood trying to make a small dent in helping those in need.  Can you imagine… if EVERY neighborhood did just one project?

Note: If you are struggling to provide necessities for your family, be sure to check out DCF’s ACCESS resources. You may be eligible for assistance.