TAMPA, Fla. - On Tuesday evening, thousands of people gathered in the Tampa Bay Times Forum to watch notable Republicans speak before the Republican National Convention. One of the most anticipated speakers for those in attendance was Ann Romney, Mitt Romney's wife, and according to some, his "secret weapon." She spoke about being a wife and mother, and how communities should come together to help those in need.
"(Mitt) has tried to live his life with a set of values centered on family, faith and love of one's fellow man," she said. "From the time we were first married, I've seen him spend countless hours helping others. I've seen him drop everything to help a friend in trouble, and been there when late-night calls of panic came from a member of our church whose child had been taken to the hospital."
She said others should follow her husband's example and help out their communities. Agreeing with the common Republican belief, she counseled that people should come together to accomplish work that could be done much more efficiently without government interference.
Meanwhile, also in the Tampa Bay area, a shelter for foster children is doing just that. A Kid's Place, located in nearby Brandon, is a sparkling facility, where abused, neglected, and abandoned children stay in group houses with live-in house parents.
The Tampa Bay area has a problem in that it is ranked third in the nation for abused and neglected children, behind only Los Angeles and the Miami area. There are a number of cultural and sociological factors at play, including a large transient population and high instances of substance abuse.
A Kid's Place, only 2 years old, is a magnet for volunteers and donors wanting to help out children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in bad situations. There are many volunteers who clean and sort clothing and bedding donations, teach some of the children and help the house parents. That's only the beginning, according to one of the founders, DeDe Grundel.
"What really makes this place remarkable is that it was completely and 100 percent funded and built on volunteerism and contributions from people in the community."
Grundel said the community has been very helpful with the facility's needs for gently used clothing for new arrivals, many of whom arrive with nothing, or with horribly dirty clothing that needs to be disposed of.
"All of these clothes came in from the community, and we have volunteers that wash, dry, fold and separate everything," she said.
There is also a church group that makes handmade quilts for all of the kids when they arrive. The kids get to keep the quilts when they leave, and they really become attached to them, according to Grundel.
In the main building, there are classrooms for toddlers, pre-K, and elementary school-aged kids. The kids who would be in kindergarten through fifth grade attend school at A Kid's Place, and there are several teachers who come to teach them. They have an agreement with the local school district so that they can teach the kids there until they are ready to attend the local schools. Ashley Wiese, one of the K-5 teachers, explained how the system works.
"This classroom sort of operates as a transitional classroom to help students either through a time of crisis, or to help them transition into a more long-term educational setting in Brooker Elementary," she said. "We can also serve to help screen the children, to see if maybe they're struggling emotionally, having challenges, or whether or not there's a deeper difficulty. We can help set them up for success once they move onto a more long-term situation.
"Sometimes they're here a day, sometimes they're here a month, sometimes they're here for the year. It just helps them, in a smaller group setting, to be able to get their needs met, academically, socially, emotionally."
Many of the middle and high school students who live in A Kid's Place are sent to public schools, often the school they attended before being removed from their homes.
There are counselors that help around A Kid's Place. They help the house parents prepare meals, put the children in bed, make snacks, and supervise their lives much as if they were older siblings. These counselors are usually training or trained to work with kids who need help, and would not get the specific experience that A Kid's Place provides otherwise. It is all designed to allow the kids to live in as normal a setting as possible, and always with their siblings under the same roof if possible, until they and their siblings are placed into the foster care program.
When the shelter was built, the houses and the main building were built mostly on a volunteer basis, with hundreds of hours of volunteer labor from local contractors and construction organizations in the area. The furniture, for example, was moved in three weeks before the opening, also by volunteers, according to Grundel.
"Everything you see was created by the goodness of people's hearts," she said. "I released into the paper that I would take 150 volunteers on such-and-such day, and I'll be wearing a pink hat, and when you get there, be expecting to be put to work! I literally had 200 people show up out there, and I'm standing there going 'Big guys, over thereyou guys are going to be moving furniture out of the trucks. Who knows how to sew?'"
EDITOR'S NOTE: 8-18 Media is a youth journalism program based at the Upper Peninsula Children's Museum in Marquette. Members of the group will be filing stories from the Republican National Convention this week.