The luncheon, “Helping Our Kids Soar,” hosted by the Children’s Guardian Fund (CGF), takes on some very tough subject matter. That’s because the mission of the CGF, in conjunction with the Guardian Ad Litem program, provides resources that fill the most basic needs and enrich the lives of children in foster and state care in Florida’s 12th Judicial Circuit, which includes Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. The stories are not pretty. In fact, there were very few dry eyes among the 350-plus guests by the time the program was over. But they are stories that need to be told.
Following lunch, Carol Belmont introduced Chair Andrea McHugh, who explained that the number of children in the program is up a startling 25 percent, largely due to the growing heroin problem. “For the children who go through this, it’s very scary and very disruptive to their lives,” she said. Speakers included case management specialist Angela Murray. She presented guests with more alarming statistics: In the state of Florida, Manatee County is number one in heroin or opioid-related deaths, and Sarasota County is number two. The 12th Judicial Circuit currently serves 1,489 children, with 915 having been removed from their parents, and 320 in foster or group care. The removal rates are 25 percent higher than in 2013.
Abby Krause then spoke about her experience as a foster parent. She and her partner have had 12 long-term placements and 36 emergency placements since 2014. Today, they have four children, ages, 3, 8, 12 and 14 and are in the process of adopting two of the children. “When people ask ‘Why foster?’ I say, ‘Why not?'” she said. “When you donate to CGF, you are not just making a donation. You are changing lives,” she added. Next to speak was Guardian ad Litem Jasmine Candlish, who has been a volunteer Guardian ad Litem for six years. She told the story of her first case and said it convinced her that despite the hardships, joy comes when you know that “the best possible outcome has been achieved for the most vulnerable in our community.” And finally, Jesse Durant, who has now aged out of the foster-care system, spoke about how it changed his life, and today he has a job, and is studying the culinary arts at Manatee Technical College. “Someday, I hope to be the heart and soul of your favorite dining experience,” he said to a standing ovation.