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Comfort and joy, at last
By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- On a quiet side street you've probably passed a thousand times and never noticed, the holiday spirit glows in the darkness of another December night.
Blinking white icicle lights and big red candy canes decorate four large, stylish ranch homes standing just off Ninth Avenue and 39th Street N.
They look like any other cluster of houses this time of year. Yet the lives they hold inside set them apart from most neighborhood blocks not only around town, but around the country.
Nineteen children reside here amid a comfort, stability and family structure most have experienced rarely, if at all. They are long-term foster children considered hard to adopt: some have simply gotten too old, others have watched prospective adoptions fall through, most have personal issues tied to abuse or severe neglect.
They are the ones with little chance of being reunited with birth parents, the ones who so frequently are split from their siblings at a young age. They bounce through the system from home to home until they hit the streets at 18, with whatever emotional baggage they've picked up along the way.
But on this street, there is a new sense of hope, with a new beginning. On land that previously housed a troubled mobile home park, an unusual village has sprung to life.
It is a place where large groups of siblings -- from multiple ethnic backgrounds, ranging in age from 3 to 16 -- have been reunited, some for the first time in years. It is a place for them to grow up together until they reach adulthood, without fear that the next day may bring another move to a new family. It is a place, finally, to call home.
This is the Salvation Army Children's Village.
The self-contained community has been operating since February on a 4-acre plot in the shadow of the organization's community center. No other Salvation Army branch in the United States has undertaken such a project. There is only one other similar venture in Florida. Located in Coconut Creek, north of Fort Lauderdale, it is part of with SOS Kinderdorf International. The Austria-based group created the children's village concept and operates villages in more than 100 countries; two SOS sites are in the United States.
On recently built William Booth Way, named for the founder of the Salvation Army, the program office is designed to blend in with the style of the four homes. It bustles with a full-time support staff, including the program's manager, a full-time mental health therapist, a family support specialist, a children's case worker, a recreation counselor and a receptionist.
They serve as a constant on-site support system to the foster parents, who were specially screened and hired for the assignment, as well as for the children.
Before nightfall, a familiar scene unfolds on the foster block: kids riding bicycles, racing around the yards, popping into one house or out of another with siblings or friends.
On the street out front, built to be free of through-traffic, Delores Atkinson, one of the foster parents, coordinates a game of four square. She pauses to explain a basic rule to one of the kids.
"When you're out, the next person goes in," Atkinson says gently.
Except now, the children don't have to live by that come-and-go rule. They get to stay, as a family, and organizers think that can make all the difference.
A big storage closet in the village office looks like a toy store: Puzzles and games such as Monopoly, Battleship and Scrabble fill the shelves.
On the main wall, a "Super Stars" bulletin board charts each child's recent accomplishments. The kids stop by the office for hugs or smiles from the staff and daily doses of positive attention.
Village officials are well aware of a primary goal of foster care: to give kids a safe, nurturing environment in the hope they can eventually be returned home.
But the reality is that many don't get there. They float through a foster system in Florida that is stretched to the limit and besieged with calls for reform.
The Salvation Army of South Pinellas had long ago identified child welfare as a pressing need in the community, initiating an in-home family counseling program to help parents maintain custody of their children. That endeavor led the organization to create Sallie House, an emergency shelter for children.
In 1997, the South Pinellas leadership was approached by Lynn Richard, Tampa regional administrator for the state Department of Children and Families. Richard liked the SOS village concept, how it accommodated large groups of siblings. "There's never one answer, but I know a lot of very experienced folks who think this is a good thing," he says.
Salvation Army officials agreed and decided to build a village as a complement to existing, family-style foster care. In 1999, Karen Braun was hired to implement plans for the village, patterned after the SOS model.
"I had been doing intensive reunification work with foster kids at a community mental health center, trying to get them back home," says Braun, who directs the South Pinellas Salvation Army's family preservation and children's services programs, including the village and Sallie House.
"We were successful only about 30 percent of the time. What I saw happen the other 70 percent was that the kids started to cycle through foster homes. I began to see that the problems those kids developed were probably due as much to their lack of stability in the foster care system as with their original birth-parent issues. Our system wasn't doing them justice."
In fact, she contends that the system was assuring problems by subjecting kids to constant changes in schools, foster families and neighborhoods.
"They've already been uprooted and separated from parents, and now their siblings," Braun says. "That's very damaging to children. You can't ask children to be resilient through all of that."
The Salvation Army's first challenge was to secure a site. Two blocks from its fellowship hall and gym on Ninth Avenue, across the street from the St. Petersburg Public Library, was a mobile home park often visited by police because of drug problems and domestic disputes.
The owner told the Salvation Army he had no intention of selling. But he agreed to meet.
"He heard the concept, and within 20 minutes there was a signed contract for the sale of the property," Braun says.
The Salvation Army paid for the land and the construction of the four homes, an investment of about $3.5-million. It also approached the Legislature for operations support and has received 100 percent state funding for the project's initial phase, roughly $2.5-million. As part of its agreement with the state, the Salvation Army must also seek community support.
Early on, the organization reached out to residents. It arranged a picnic and has kept them apprised of plans. Foster kids mix with neighborhood kids.
"We've always been very happy with them here. For us, it's a nice change from what it was," says Brian Longstreth, head of the Central Oak Park Neighborhood Association. "They just wanted to blend in with the neighborhood, and that's what has happened."
On a recent afternoon, two siblings lug their belongings out of their house. They are getting set for another move, leaving four other siblings behind in the care of foster mom Jeanette Timmons.
But here's the catch.
The two -- a brother and sister, 10 and 11 -- are moving only three houses down, to live with the village's new foster parents, Lisa and Mike Guild.
Moves such as these are part of the village's unique approach. The two siblings were having some problems, so they were given a change of surroundings. But instead of being separated for years from siblings and home, they are seconds away. And they'll likely return soon.
"The kids have an innate desire to be a family and to be together," says therapist Melissa Georgopolous Kerley. "But they have fights with siblings just like a regular family, too. All these kids have pretty intense issues -- a lot of anger problems, not knowing what to do with it. But the support they get here is wonderful. And you can already see changes for the better."
The evidence lies in improved grades, more self-confidence, less acting up.
"I'm not saying that every kid has mellowed out," Braun says. "We have some very tough kids and some tough days here. But there are kids who've started to blossom."
"I like it here cause you can race your bike, and there are lots of kids to play with," an 8-year-old girl says. "And I get to be with my brothers and sisters."
The Salvation Army sought experienced parents, then provided incentives: a van for each household, homes designed and furnished for a large family, money for groceries and utilities, and a salary for one parent per house.
The parents get a day off per week and a weekend off per month, plus holidays and vacations.
"All the parents are doing a good job, and we're working with them as a team," program manager Paul Tretbar says. "They've made a big commitment. They're not just working here. They're living here now. It's a challenge to uproot your whole life."
Jeanette Timmons is used to challenges. She has had more than 300 foster children since 1992, in addition to three children of their own. She jumped at the chance to join the village; it enabled her to reunite with six siblings she had cared for but who had been split up.
"We still have our little rivalries, but I think they really appreciate being together again," Timmons says.
Delores and Carl Atkinson are the parents next door. They met in 1989 while working at the Home Shopping Network. She had three young children, and soon after they married, the couple decided to try foster parenting. First came a little boy they plan to adopt, then, in the middle of the night, two sisters, ages 2 and 5.
"The 5-year-old came up to me and said, 'Are you my mommy?' It just breaks your heart," Ms. Atkinson says. "Then, after we gave them a snack, she said, 'Mommy, I love you.' She was just so desperate to reach out and make sure we'd extend the love back."
That girl was soon returned to a birth parent, but when the parent relinquished rights, she was nearly placed in a new home. The Atkinsons had to fight to regain custody and reunite the sisters. The sisters, now 3 and 6, live with them in the village along with the Atkinsons' foster son, 4, and three other boys, brothers ages 15, 12 and 8.
"Carl and I are going to be here indefinitely, we hope," Ms. Atkinson says. "We want to help these kids grow up and see the fruit we planted with them."
Luis and Barbara Baquedo came from California for a chance to experience the village concept. Luis was a longtime Salvation Army pastor of Spanish ministries, Barbara a nurse. They have four grown children and have been foster parents. Now their family includes two brothers, 8 and 10, and a sister, 12, and a 10-year-old sister of siblings next door.
The Baquedos, like all the village parents, assign daily chores to each child. At their house, Luis hands out wads of play money for completed jobs and lets the kids exchange it for TV or computer privileges, pizza parties or real money to buy Christmas gifts.
His 8-year-old foster son excitedly produces a fistful of hundreds of fake bills.
"I owe everybody, but that's okay, because they're performing well and motivated," Luis says.
A van arrives, and Barbara Baquedo walks in with boxes of Christmas ornaments as her foster kids rush to help her decorate their first tree together.
At the Guilds' house one over, a 9-year-old boy compares Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh! trading cards with his new 10-year-old roommate, who has just moved in from House No. 1. They're getting along great, ready to play a Nintendo 64 game of Donkey Kong.
At the dinner table nearby, though, two girls are not so happy. The 13-year-old is not pleased to have a new roommate from the first house. She vents as the newcomer glares. It's all par for the course for the Guilds, who decided to get back into foster parenting when they heard about the village.
"When we were doing foster parenting before, you felt like you were out on an island a lot of times, but the on-site support here was very enticing," says Lisa Guild, whose husband, Mike, is an operations supervisor for the Pinellas County school system.
The staff not only has regular parent meetings but coordinates village activities such as softball games and camping trips. The office works closely with Family Continuity Programs, which refers children to the village. Nineteen of 24 available spots -- a maximum of six children per home -- are filled.
If all goes well, Braun says, the village will add three homes on the field across the street.
"These are our kids, and the idea is that there's a place that will always be there for them now," she says. 'The parents may change. The staff may change. But the village will be here. And that's a lot more continuity than these kids have ever known."
-- For more information about the Salvation Army Children's Village, call (727) 550-8080, ext. 231.
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