Child advocacy center closer to being built

The center, to be named after Jessica Lunsford, is set to be incorporated in a couple of weeks.

Published July 12, 2006

As the man accused of killing Jessica Lunsford faces trial this week, organizers have taken the next step forward building a child advocacy center that will be named after the 9-year-old girl.

The process of incorporating the center should wrap up in a couple of weeks, and then organizers will apply to the IRS for nonprofit status, said Citrus County General Magistrate Keith Schenck, who has helped spearhead the project.

"The trial may help raise awareness," Schenck said. "But in Citrus County, the community has always stepped up to the plate for kids."

Discussions about an advocacy center began last year, after authorities found Jessica's body buried behind a neighbor's mobile home.

During child abuse investigations, victims are often sent through a maze of government agencies. Children who live in Citrus must go as far as Ocala and Gainesville for medical examinations, which sometimes must be done in the middle of the night.

The advocacy center would bring those agencies responsible for investigations - the Sheriff's Office, the Department of Children and Families, Kids Central Inc. and the child protection team - together under one roof in Citrus.

"It will be a single building that looks like a home," Schenck said. "The design will be welcoming."

Organizers aren't sure what the building will look like, though there have been some preliminary meetings with architects.

They hope to build it on land north of Rock Crusher Elementary School, where the Sheriff's Office also hopes to construct Safety Town and Enterprise Village.

The village will teach kids business skills; the pint-sized town will inform them about water safety and traffic rules.

"It's a mockup of a town, with child-sized buildings and tiny streets," Schenck said. "Instead of telling them to look both ways before they cross a street, they will have a street they can look both ways across."

The advocacy center is looking for an executive director and a development coordinator who can assist with fundraising.

Schenck said organizers will apply for grants as well as solicit funds from the community.

He is confidant that residents will come through.

"The citizens here have always been supportive of kids," he said. "This is something that will be around long after the Couey case is over."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or 564-3627.