SARASOTA COUNTY – When Devon Poulos was 11, he was called a problem child and told that he’d never become successful.
Poulos and his younger brother were removed from their mother’s home when she was taken to jail. They lived in foster homes and with their grandmother for a while before her health deteriorated, then it was back to children shelters and foster care — 16 foster homes in all.
“I hated life because I felt like I wasn’t living a normal life,” Poulos said Thursday at the Children’s Guardian Fund Fall Luncheon. “I didn’t have a mom. I didn’t have a dad. I felt like a nobody.”
But Poulos had a guardian ad litem, someone to advocate for him and his brother in the court system.
Through the Children’s Guardian Fund, Poulos was able to attend summer camps, go on JROTC trips, take lifeguard lessons and become a licensed scuba diver. He graduated from North Port High School in the top 1 percent of students involved in JROTC programs nationwide. He was adopted by his guardian ad litem, who encouraged him to volunteer at the YMCA.
He is now the director of youth programs for the YMCA of Charlotte County. He’s also getting a degree in psychology with hopes to become a guidance counselor.
“I use my experiences to make sure no kids feel the way I did,” Poulos said. “All kids deserve a chance.”
Poulos was one of the speaker’s at this week’s fundraising lunch at Michael’s on East. The Children’s Guardian Fund, in partnership with the Guardian ad Litem program, is used to provide resources and other opportunities for children living in state and foster care within the 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.
Meme Tresalus, who also lived in foster care, is a college student who has traveled to Tallahassee to advocate for better laws to protect children. She recited a poem that she wrote titled “From Pain to Pleasure.”
“I was just 13 years old when the state walked in because both my mother and my father walked out,” Tresalus said. “I was angry and scared, but I was also relieved.”
Manatee County Sheriff’s Maj. Connie Shingledecker was the keynote speaker. She shared photos and stories of children who have been neglected and abused, removed from their homes and placed into foster care. With a recent influx of heroin usage, she spoke specifically about children of drug-addicted parents, children who have watched their parents overdose and babies born with addiction.
“Substance abuse is at the heart of most cases,” Shingledecker said.
Agencies in the 12th Judicial Circuit investigate thousands of hotline reports each year, Shingledecker said, adding that hundreds of children are in the court systems and under the care of the state or foster parents.
More than 100 additional volunteers are needed for the Guardian ad Litem program.
Former guardians Carol and Morton Siegler, both in the 90s, received the 2015 Child Advocacy Award.
“Mort and I believe you can’t be everywhere, but you have to be somewhere,” Carol Siegler said.