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Chip In "Fore" Kids Golf Tournament

The Florida team had beautiful weather and a good turnout for their Chip In “Fore” Kids Golf Tournament at Highlands Ridge Golf Club in late May. The event was a great community builder and raised much-needed funds for the children and families of Highlands County and surrounding areas. Thanks to all of the staff who dedicated their time and resources to this event!

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Building Hope With Habitat for Humanity

On November 14, 2014, our service centers of Highlands and Hardee County, Florida collaborated with Habitat for Humanity in an amazing effort to build a home for a family in need. This was the first time in about five years that Habitat for Humanity Highlands County committed to a “new build”, which involves building a new home from start to finish. One Hope United couldn’t pass on the opportunity to lend a helping hand, with 15 staff members showing up to volunteer during the building process.

The OHU volunteers worked from about 8:30am until 3:00pm and accomplished a great deal, having gotten several walls for the house up by the end of the day. The family was asked to invest 300 “sweat” hours of their own; fortunately, the volunteers were able to donate 111.75 of those hours to the family, more than 1/3 of what is required. OHU does not want to just stop there, but plan to lend more of their time to this deserving family as the home nears completion and needs some painting or finishing touches.

A representative from the the team has also been invited to speak at the Habitat for Humanity Highland County Christmas breakfast to share their experience working together, as well as One Hope United’s view on the positive effects of affordable housing on families. One Hope United is very excited to begin teaming up with Habitat for Humanity for more volunteer opportunities like this in the near future!

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Toddler reunited with biological family almost two years after death of mother

When Jason came to One Hope United in October 2009, very little was known about his birth mother.

At the age of 2, Jason was removed from the care of non-relatives after he was repeatedly left alone without supervision. He was found,  wandering outside and was almost struck by a vehicle in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he was living.

Jason was immediately removed from the caregiver due to neglect and inadequate supervision.

Upon receiving Jason’s case, One Hope United team members discovered that he had no known biological family. His mother was killed by gunshot when Jason was only 3 months old. Since then, his life was unstable, having lived with two families, both non-relative, who were unable to care for him properly.

One Hope United staff were passionate about finding a permanent, loving home for the young boy. Utilizing a new family finding approach, which included a brainstorming session between Program Director Neika Berry, Supervisor Ebonie Hopkins and Program Specialist Valerie Threadgill, to determine what could be discovered about Jason’s biological family.

First, the identity and location of Jason’s father were questionable and following paternity testing, there were no leads.

Through diligent case mining efforts, staff discovered that Jason had two half-siblings that were removed from his mother’s care prior to his birth. Those children remained with paternal relatives, who were not related to Jason, and unfortunately, the caregivers were not interested in taking care of him.

It was through the implementation of family finding techniques that One Hope United was able to locate two possible maternal relatives of Jason. The maternal grandmother and uncle were possibly living in Lake Worth, Florida.

Family Case Manager Alrick Esberry took the initiative and attempted to contact both individuals at their last known addresses. Within a week, both relatives contacted Esberry and were eager to assist in providing a home for Jason. It was discovered that the maternal relatives had lost touch with Marie, Jason’s biological mother, due to her troubled past and were not aware of the baby that she had prior to her sudden death. Immediately, both relatives were invested and worked with One Hope United to give Jason a much deserved home.

In March 2010, Jason was placed with his maternal uncle and family in Palm Beach County with a goal of adoption. Due to the hard work and dedication of Esberry and the new Family Finding Initiative, launched by passionate One Hope United team members and in collaboration with Family Services of Metro Orlando, Jason was reunited with his biological family, found a loving home and forever family.

A tumultuous time line before finding a forever home

Jay, 16 going on 17, has spent the vast majority of his life in and out of foster care along with his five siblings. Jay, his two brothers and three sisters were initially removed from their mother on May 6, 1997, because of unsafe and unsanitary living conditions in the home. Upon entering the household, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) could not alleviate the safety and risk concerns due to verified findings of medical neglect and conditions hazardous to the health of the children.

On Aug. 15, 1997, against the recommendation of DCF, the court reunified Jay and two of his siblings with their mother.

A year later, Jay and his siblings once again, found themselves back in foster care after the children were exposed to domestic violence and physical abuse.

By April 19, 2000, the court terminated the parental rights of the mother and legal father.

And in 2001, the three sisters were adopted, leaving Jay and his brother behind in foster care. All hope was not lost for the brothers, as the two were placed with their maternal grandmother shortly after the girls’ adoption. But by 2005, the brothers were once again moved into a nonrelative placement after their grandmother fell very ill and could no longer care for them.

Hope seemed to be seriously waning for the brothers, when they were removed from the nonrelative placement due to physical abuse. The brothers were then thrown back into foster care.

In April 2007, Jay was placed in a One Hope United foster home with Nikki Ballou. The experienced foster mother noticed Jay was exhibiting problems with depression and anger and rightly so, after so many years of let downs. Then, the unlikely happened; Ms. Ballou and Jay began to bond.

With Ms. Ballou’s devoted presence in his life, Jay was able to overcome his struggles with depression and self esteem. Then, in Aug. 2008, a paternal cousin stepped forward and Jay was placed in that home with a goal to close permanent guardianship.

In Jan. 2009, despite his needs being met with the paternal cousin, Jay requested to be placed back in licensed foster care home of Ms. Ballou. Ms. Ballou was happy to have Jay back. He returned to her care on Jan. 16, 2009, with a goal to age out of foster care in her home, because Jay did not want to be adopted.

About six months ago, Jay finally started considering the idea of adoption after considering his future with no forever family, as he had lost most of his family members during his tumultuous youth in and out of foster care. Stephen Ryan, adoption case manager for One Hope United, and Shanda Moorman, Family Services of Metro Orlando and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption recruiter, were relentless on encouraging Jay to never give up on the idea of finding his forever family.

In early Feb. 2010, after much encouragement from Stephen and Shanda, Jay, finally opened up about his true feelings and desires to be adopted by the woman that has shown him unconditional love and devotion, his foster mother, Ms. Ballou. So it was that at a Parent’s Night Out Adoption Recruitment event in late Feb. 2010, Jay talked to a room full of future adoptive parents. Jay spoke about his life in foster care, about being ripped apart from his siblings and about his struggle to accept being adopted.

Jay told the crowd, he changed his mind about being adopted, because he wants “someone to pick him up when he falls.”  Jay, who just wanted “to know that at 18 I have a family,” was officially adopted by his foster mother, Ms. Ballou, on March 31, 2010.

Advocacy and collaboration paved a path to permanent home with birth father

A destructive confrontation, in which her mother brandished a knife, landed Brianna*, 13, in foster care. Brianna suffered knife cuts on her hands as a consequence of the altercation with her mother. Investigators saw these cuts during a visit to the home, resulting in Brianna’s removal in Sept. 2009.

Brianna was placed in an emergency shelter in a neighboring county about 70 miles from her mother’s home. Not quite a month later, she was moved to a residential foster care group home for teenage girls in Orlando. Upon entry to the group home, Brianna faced many hardships as the youngest and was picked on by the older girls.

Family Case Manager Jacinta Robinson became an instant advocate for Brianna and began to search for appropriate options for the young girl outside of licensed foster care.

While mining the case file, Jacinta located contact information for Brianna’s birth father. The One Hope United case manager took things a step further and made contact with the father, who was living in New Jersey. The father assured Jacinta that he wanted his daughter home with him, and he was able to provide a copy of the court order showing that he had joint custodial guardianship of Brianna, as a result of a previous divorce.

Jacinta continued to advocate for Brianna by communicating with Supervisor Laurie Stern and other One Hope United leadership with a hope that potential barriers could be removed on the behalf of the best interest of the child. Unfortunately, some of the barriers included a criminal case in addition to a dependency case against the mother, where Brianna would be a witness required to testify. In addition, Interstate Compact was also a potential barrier given her recent shelter.

Despite the barriers and challenges, Jacinta continued to work with OHU leadership who worked with the Department of Family Services staff and Children’s Legal Services staff to think out of the box to ensure that Brianna would not spend Thanksgiving in foster care. Jacinta strongly felt that Brianna should be placed with her birth father, who eagerly wanted her home.

With the collaboration of many, and the advocacy by Jacinta and Laurie, Brianna was able to visit her father in New Jersey for Thanksgiving. While she was there, OHU continued to advocate for Brianna’s well-being and worked with Children’s Legal Services to dismiss the dependency case and place the child with the father, who also worked with an attorney in New Jersey to get full custody of Brianna.

Eventually, the teamwork lead by Jacinta made it possible for this child to be placed with her birth father permanently. Brianna was able to happily spend the holiday season with family and loved ones, where Jacinta reports she is now flourishing.

*Name was changed to protect confidentiality.

Orlando foster youth to go from independent living to full academic scholarship playing Division I football

While growing up, Davonnie Coard admits he was a very difficult child and was no stranger to the delinquency system. At 14, Davonnie got into a violent fight with his brother—ultimately leading to his arrest. His mother, unable to handle the situation and fearing for her and the family’s safety, requested assistance from the State of Florida.

So Davonnie entered foster care. He bounced from group home to group home, mostly due to requests for removal due to bad behavior. At 16, he arrived at a facility in Pine Hills, Florida, and enrolled at Evans High School. Greg Thompson, head football coach at Evans, immediately recognized Davonnie’s large stature, standing at 6 foot 4 inches tall and weighing 305 pounds, and asked Davonnie to play for the Evans High School football team.

Davonnie credits Coach Thompson with teaching him how to refocus his anger onto the football field. Davonnie’s demeanor at the group home began to change for the better shortly after starting football, and for once in his life, Davonnie found stability.

By age 17, Davonnie remained stable in his group home in Pine Hills and demonstrated no negative behaviors. And, for the first time in a long time, he had committed individuals in his life, including Coach Thompson, and new mentor, Bill Rodriguez.

With his new found success on the football field and entering into his senior year of high school, Davonnie was looking for and wanted more in his home life. During this time, Stephen Ryan, independent living coordinator with One Hope United, worked with Davonnie on transferring to the Laurel Hill Independence Center, an independent living group home facility that allows older, responsible children in foster care to have more self-sufficiency, while teaching them essential skills to prepare them for the real world.

“I did a lot of work with Davonnie in preparing him for his 18th birthday,” said Stephen. “When the children I’m working with turn 18, I give each of them a way to contact me, whether it’s by phone or e-mail, so they do not lose that extra support while they transition to adulthood. Even though One Hope United is no longer officially involved in these cases, I still work with them to help point them in the right direction.”

Stephen says that Davonnie is thriving and learning so much from his stay at Laurel Hill Independence Center, including how to lead an independent life after 18. He is also learning about collegiate football from the center’s Program Manager Calvin Windham, who was a former player of Louisiana State University.

Unfortunately, during the first preseason scrimmage of Davonnie’s senior year, he broke his left foot. Even with such a short amount of playtime due to the injury, Davonnie’s confidence on the field and passion for football showed through, making an impact on football scouts from across the nation.

On Feb. 3, 2010, National Signing Day for college football, Davonnie signed his Letter of Intent to play Division I football at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida. Florida A&M University even offered Davonnie a full academic scholarship!

Davonnie still calls Stephen to ask for life advice or help with filling out forms. Just the other day, Davonnie asked Stephen to accompany him to a parent/teacher conference at school.

“While I had no legal standpoint because Davonnie was 18 years old, I believe that he just wanted to see a friendly face and have someone he can turn to with questions,” said Stephen. “I’m so excited to see Davonnie off when he moves to Tallahassee in the fall!”