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Don't let these volunteers be alone
By ERNEST HOOPER
Published December 19, 2007
Chief Judge Manuel Menendez stood before a recent holiday gathering of guardians ad litem and talked about their importance to Hillsborough County's 4,000-plus children in dependency.
He was emotional, and the room quickly fell silent. Then the volunteers, including 21 new inductees who had just completed guardian ad litem training, stood to recite the oath. They promised that their "paramount concern will always be the best interests of the child to whom I am assigned." Applause filled the room.
The plight of abused, abandoned and neglected children stirs a passion in many. The willingness of volunteers to help unloved kids secure a nurturing home moves their souls.
Those are the goals of the Guardian ad Litem Program. It seeks people to provide a voice for foster kids, 40 percent of whom are under the age of 5.
Three years ago, only 35 percent of such children had someone to visit them at their homes, assess their educational, emotional and physical needs and be the eyes and ears of the court.
Today, that number has risen to 78 percent, but the program and its foundation arm, Voices For Children, want to reach 100 percent.
"I don't believe it's unrealistic," said Lisa Semeyn, executive director of Voices For Children. "It's the one thing that can break the cycle. If we can place these little guys in a safe place with someone who cares, if we can stop the hurt, then they're not going to grow up to hurt someone else."
Voices For Children recently staged a toy drive. While Semeyn marveled over how the community's generosity filled a room at Christ the King Catholic Church, she couldn't help but think about how the children she serves need more than just dolls and games.
"We send out cards every Christmas that say, 'Children need more than Santa this Christmas; they need an angel,'" Semeyn said. "When you're talking about 4,000 children, sometimes it seems overwhelming.
"But if we all take one, we can get it done."
One of the biggest keys for Voices For Children is awareness. Guardian "ad litem," a Latin phrase meaning "for this case," can be a difficult term to get your arms around. Although Voices For Children reaped the benefits of a successful billboard campaign this year, there are still some who give you a quizzical look when asked about the term.
The program also requires folks to go through 30 hours of training (two three-hour classes a week for five weeks). Volunteers, who must be 19 or older, are screened and trained in areas relating to courtroom procedure, child welfare, and the special needs of children. For more information, go to dcfgal.org.
The rewards can be immeasurable.
"I think I get more out of it than he does," said Scott Farrell, a board member who looks after the interests of a 15-year-old. "It's a wonderful opportunity to say to someone who has never been loved. 'I care.' When I ask him, 'What do you think?' he's shocked because no one has ever said that."
When the applause subsided at that holiday party, Dr. Randy Feldman and his wife Kelly came to Semeyn and said they wanted to enroll in the next training class.
"We don't want to be sitting down next year," Feldman told her. "We want to be standing (with the other guardians)."