May 19, 2010 | John Hood
CHARLEE is Saving South Florida, One Child at a Time
“You are in foster care because the State believes that you were not safe at home and that your parents need some time to learn how to take better care of you.”
So says The Foster Care Guide (for Kids) on a page headed “Why am I in foster care?” It’s the second entry in the handbook (right after “How long will I be in foster care?”), so the question is undoubtedly among a child’s most frequently asked. And if you picture, say, a six or seven or eight-year-old kid asking that question, you’re pretty much guaranteed to feel a break in your heart.
You’d feel likewise whether the child was five or fifteen. After all, it’s not the kid’s fault the “parents need some time to learn how to better take care of” them.
Even more heartbreaking perhaps is the handbook’s helpful “Words to Know.” There you’ll find definitions for terms like Case Plan, Child Placing Agency, Department of Children and Families, Guardian Ad Litem and Juvenile Court. Big terms. Bureaucratic terms. Scary terms. Terms that no child should ever have to learn.
But there’s no use hoping the day will come when children won’t ever again have to learn them, because as sure as the sun will set tonight, somewhere there’s a parent who can’t take care of their kid. They don’t necessarily have to bad parents – they could be mixed-up or out of work or simply too young to handle their charges. But whatever the reason, it’s generally the child who suffers most.
That’s why there are organizations such as CHARLEE Homes for Children. Outfits that not only place a child somewhere safe, but act as a safety net for the various falls a foster child is bound to endure in their young life.
One of those nets in fact is that handbook, which the good folks at CHARLEE keep on hand for any kids that happen to come their way. Put out by The Children’s Home Society of Florida, it provides a kid’s eye view of what could very well be a nightmare. And it’s just one of many steps – small, medium and large – that CHARLEE takes to ensure a kid never ever wakes up screaming.
CHARLEE, as you might suspect, is an acronym, and it stands for Children Have All Rights: Legal, Educational, Emotional. The organization was founded 27 years ago right here in Miami-Dade County “as a coordinated effort of the Junior League of Miami, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. Word is it’s “based on a concept created by the Menninger Foundation,” who, according to their Wiki page, have “a vision of a better kind of medicine and a better kind of world.”
Walking through CHARLEE’S two floor, Downtown headquarters, one gets the impression that the Menningers aren’t the only ones looking toward a better world. From the front desk (which is handled by charming CHARLEE graduate Crystal Jones) to the in-house medical team (headed by Pam Goodman) there’s a small sea of people who see that the future can be in their hands. And if you were to stand on the shoulders of these giants, you too could see for miles.
That doing good view gets compounded when you meet the keen Kedy Augusten, another CHARLEE grad, who divides his time between HQ and Miami-Dade, where he’s learning the tech ropes that’ll keep him in good stead throughout the rest of his life. Augusten, a Haitian-American who’s quick of smile and bright of eyes, is a perfect example of the best kind of adult CHARLEE kids can grow up to be. Then again, he could be a feather in the cap of all humanity.
CHARLEE Development Coordinator Amy Pepe, who kindly gave SunPost the tour of the headquarters, estimates that 90% of their kids go on to some kind of continuing education. And it appears that when possible many of those kids find work right there at CHARLEE. That only makes sense when you consider that they know the business first hand.
But one doesn’t have to have been a CHARLEE kid to empathize and want to help the children. And everyone from Executive Assistant Leah Houston to Executive Director Suzy Schumer is alit with mission.
That sense of altruism is evident at each of CHARLEE’s 165 desks. And it’s especially evident at the desk of Adoptions Recruiter Ronald Mumford, who serves as a kind of community outreach specialist for folks thinking about navigating the waters of adoption.
“I go out to various civic organizations and churches and spread the word on the need for adoptive parents,” he says. “And I try to dispel some of the myths involved with adoption. For instance, people think you’ve got to be married or make a certain income or own your own home. You don’t.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a strict criterion for adoptive parents to abide by, and, to be sure the screening process is necessarily thorough. Then again would you want our town’s future leaders to have grown up under anything less? Of course you wouldn’t.
A similar criterion applies to the 100 licensed foster families that fall under CHARLEE’s domain, each of which get the benefit of the staff’s vast expertise. There’s a five kid limit, for instance, unless a set of siblings are involved, and one of CHARLEE’s 35 case workers visits each home with whatever frequency is needed.
But placing the kids is just the big picture stuff; CHARLEE also handles everything from clothing them (the in-house Depot) to granting them the vacation of their lives (at CHARLEE’s Buffalo Cove Outdoor Education Center in North Carolina). Then of course there’s counseling, the aforementioned medical (which includes dental and vision), and, for kids 13-17, an Independent Living Program, which prepares them for a life on their own.
Naturally none of this is cheap. And while the State does contribute, and folks like Oprah and Rosie have chipped in on occasion, and Grants Manager Christine Sainvil is a whiz of a writer, there’s never a day when more isn’t needed. To that end CHARLEE runs a plethora of fundraising activities, from CHARLEE Chats to the annual CHARLEE and the Chocolate Factory shindig. There are toy drives, and goods drives, and a Donor Relations Specialist named Margaret Perez who’s always on hand for those willing to give.
It can’t be easy growing up without one’s biological parents, but CHARLEE has proven that it can turn out for the best. All it takes is a little know-how, a lotta moxie, and a desire to make tomorrow just a little bit better for a child.
To Help: CHARLEE homes for Children needs your help.
For cash donations please go the their website http://www.charleeprogram.org/donate
To Foster a child contact Contact Maria Zuniga in Supported Foster Care Staff at 305-779-9746 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
To volunteer: Contact Human Resources to complete Volunteer Application process 305-779-9720 or go online http://www.charleeprogram.org