MAXWELL:  Bringing dignity to the lives of children

6/29/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg

 

Tanika Thornton, a 21-year-old single mother, is infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. Most days, she is too weak to care for her rambunctious 1-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son for more than a few hours and must take a break from them.

Fortunately for Thornton and many other parents in this mostly black area of north Tampa, the Great Day Respite House, which opened two years ago, is a few blocks away. Great Day, an affiliate of the not-for-profit Family Enrichment Center, cares for 35 children, infants to 6-year-olds, whose families have in some way been affected by HIV or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Although games and field trips are part of its activities, Great Day is more than a babysitter, program supervisor Rhenita Reeder said. Depending on their needs, the children receive free academic, social and motor skills training. Thornton’s son, for example, has been in the program since June 1996 and has learned his alphabets, colors and numbers.

“If I didn’t have this place, I don’t know what I would do,” Thornton said, comprehending the mission of Great Day: to prepare the children and their relatives for the loss of a parent.

If she dies while they are young, Thornton wants her children to have a permanent, loving home.

Reeder understands the plight of women such as Thornton. The AIDS epidemic is leaving many children orphaned in Tampa. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, AIDS is now the leading cause of death among black women aged 25-44, including those in Tampa.

And nearly 80,000 children nationwide have been orphaned because their mothers died of AIDS. Authorities predict that by the year 2000 that figure will reach 125,000.

In Tampa, the Family Enrichment Center is assisting such children through its foster care and adoption programs. Founded in 1992 by the College Hill Church of God in Christ, the center runs the only black-owned adoption agency in the Southeastern United States, one of only six in the country. The center now has its own charter and no longer is affiliated with the church.

With a budget of only $275,000 _ most of that sum coming from the Ryan White Title I Provision Act, Hillsborough County, the city of Tampa and the Florida Department of Children and Families _ the center has become one of the most effective social organizations in the state.

During each of its two years of existence, executive director Olga Williams said, the center has placed more “special needs” children into adoption than any other private agency in Tampa Bay, exploding the myth that blacks do not adopt. Special needs children are 8 or older, are often siblings, may have been identified as having a developmental disability or have been registered in the state’s adoption exchange for at least six months. They are the most difficult to place because many clients want young children.

Williams explains that the center’s uniqueness accounts for much of its success. “We’re in the heart of the black community and you can walk in,” she said. “That makes us unique. Our families are connected somehow to the church or to other relatives. We grow by word of mouth. We’re unique also because the faces in our office don’t change as often as they do in the larger agencies.

“We never want to have more than 50 or 60 adoptive homes under our care at one time so that we can stay familiar and accessible. We’re user-friendly, a place where people can feel comfortable, where they can get services from people who look like them. We understand our clients’ histories and we listen. We understand their language. Another strength of the center is that several members of our board of directors have adopted children. They empathize with the community people.”

Furthermore, Williams said, the center uses common sense to streamline the process for becoming a foster parent and for adopting. For example, the center has legally reduced the mandated parenting classes from 10 weeks to four by requiring clients to meet more often during a shorter period of time.

And although the organization is black-owned and operated, Williams said that she would place a black child in a white family. “We put the child in the best home for the child,” she said. “The center matches families to children, not children to families.”

Despite its extraordinary success, however, the center struggles to survive. Two major problems are that local black people do not, or cannot, donate money, and no corporate angel has stepped forward.

A more urgent problem is that Florida lawmakers seem not to take black children’s groups and support systems seriously. For example, during the last legislative session, state Sen. Jim Hargrett, who represents the district to which the center belongs, pushed a proposal to fund the organization. The proposal failed. One reason is that it came up for review midway the session, a time when most dollars for such efforts had already been appropriated. Hargrett said that he will reintroduce the proposal.

But Williams, along with her staff, remains optimistic. She wants a new building, additional key employees and a $1-million budget to bring dignity into the lives of children needing stable homes.

Parents such as Tanika Thornton also hold to these dreams because for her, the Family Enrichment Center is a place of hope.