Adopted Siblings Now Have A Home for the Holidays

December 23, 2010

The new Alford family on National Adoption Day 2010

Last year, six siblings spent the holiday wishing for a forever family; this year, they can cross that item off their wish lists.

 Bryan and Carla Alford met five of their future children at an adoption matching event hosted by Family Services of Metro Orlando and Wendy’s Wonderful Kids in 2008. To the children – three girls and two boys – the event passed in a blur of balloons, face painting and games; but to the Alfords, the faces of the five children remained vivid in their memory. When they saw the same siblings at another adoption matching event a year later, they couple began to realize what might happen to the children over the next few years if nothing changed.

 “We asked ourselves, ‘If we don’t [adopt these kids], who will?’” said Bryan. “The time was quickly approaching where they would have had to try and be adopted individually. But the kids wanted to be together and… we didn’t want any of them to grow up wondering ‘Why didn’t anyone want me?’”

 This year, Bryan and Carla finalized the adoption of the youngest sibling, a two-year-old baby girl, and then adopted the five remaining siblings two months later during a National Adoption Day celebration in Osceola County on November 19, 2010. 

 Over the past five years, Bryan and Carla Alford have cared for nearly 35 local children as foster parents in Osceola County, Florida. Some have stayed in their home as briefly as one night, while others have remained there for up to three years. The Alfords maintain contact with many of the foster children they previously cared for, now as extended family and members of the children’s support networks.

 Now, as the holidays quickly approach, the Alford household is expected to be both hectic and heartwarming. The children have never seen so many presents under one tree and the reality that the gifts are all for them has yet to fully sink in.

 “I’m looking forward to Christmas ‘cause there’s lots of present boxes under the tree,” said nine-year-old Ivy, the eldest of the group. “And I’m happy because now we get to spend all the holidays together… It feels good to be adopted.”


From Violence to Victory

May 21, 2010
A Central Florida teen is shot during an attempted robbery, but recovers with a new outlook on life.

A Downward Spiral

Cornelius Turner never dreamed he would be where he is today.

Born in San Bernardino, California, Neil lived in Tennessee for several months before moving with his single mother and brother to Orlando, Florida at three years of age. Living on Mercy Drive, Neil earned above average grades in elementary and middle school, although he did not particularly enjoy academics.

Upon attending Evans High School in ninth grade, Neil began to allow his negative environment to change his attitudes and ambitions. He began snatching wallets and books from fellow students, stealing cars, drinking liquor and smoking marijuana before finally becoming a drug dealer himself. As he embedded himself deeper and deeper into the street culture which surrounded him, his actions grew evermore reckless. Caught up entirely in pleasures of the moment, the street culture offered him easy access to money, women and mind-numbing substances. He repeatedly ignored warning signs that his situation was spiraling out of control.

In the tenth grade, Neil’s life changed forever. A few days after a successful hold-up, Neil and his usual friends decided to rob a man they saw entering a convenience store. But when it came time to initiate the plan, Neil’s friends backed out, leaving him to go on alone. During the confrontation that followed, the would-be victim shot Neil in the back.

A Violent Culture

The adolescent years play an integral role in the mental development of youth. Lifestyles and skills developed at this time can have a deep impact on how individuals behave as adults. According to statistics published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, 7,302 youth under the age of 18 spent residential time in juvenile detention and correctional facilities in 2006.That same year, approximately 836 Florida teens between the ages of 15 to 19 died from all causes; 656 of these teens died violent deaths by either homicide, suicide or accident.

Steve Dalsemer, director of the Orange County Juvenile Assessment Center, reported that in 2009, just over 8,200 children under 18 years of age were arrested and processed through his center.

A Change in Vision

Neil’s life could have ended in that one, painful moment. Paramedics quickly transported him to a local hospital, where doctors described his prognosis as grim. The bullet had severed his ninth vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The resulting trauma kept him in a coma for nearly two and a half months. He regained consciousness on his sixteenth birthday and entered a rehabilitation therapy program. Several more months passed until his condition improved enough for his mother to take him home.

Although a visiting nurse tended to his needs at first, her visits soon became irregular and then stopped completely. His mother could not correctly deal with her son’s medical needs alone. As a result, Neil suffered from a septic infection due to bedsores, which caused him to return to the hospital for nearly eight more months. Due to the seriousness of his condition, the Florida Department of Children and Families intervened to place Neil in a medical foster home in January of 2010.

A New Dream

After his 18th birthday, this courageous young man has decided to share his experiences with the world. As a fortunate survivor of a brutally violent teen culture, he earnestly believes he has a message for others who may be facing the same choices he made three years ago.

“I’m young, so [I’m] a better person to reach out and talk to them and they’ll have a better understanding through me than some [older person]” said Neil. “You know, its all about how you make your decisions. If you wanna be a drug dealer, [you can be] be a drug dealer. If you wanna be a star, you can be a star. You know, anybody can be what they wanna be as long as they put the[ir] mind to it.”

Amidst the uncertainties that lie ahead of him, Neil knows one thing: he possesses a gift for music. Although he has had no formal training, he plays guitar, drums, harmonica and piano all by ear and he holds a deep passion for writing free-style rap about his life. “The reason I’m putting it out in music is ‘cause its a better way of communicating to people…They can do whatever they wanna do [after they hear it]. I’m just giving a warning. They say warning comes before destruction.”

For this extraordinary young man, life has taken on a new meaning with the possibility of following his musical dreams to a lasting purpose. “[My message] is this right here,” he boldly stated. “This goes out to everybody out there who’s going through somethin’. Just know that you gonna find the sunshine outside in the rain… Keep your head up.”


Service Learning Project at Camp Thunderbird

March 23, 2010
Eight foster youth volunteer to give children a childhood by helping a summer camp that serves developmentally disabled youth

On March 21, Hands On Orlando organized 200 volunteers including eight foster youth and seven staff from Great Oaks Village, Milestone Social Services, Inc. and Healthy Families Orange to help Camp Thunderbird prepare for the start of summer.

Camp Thunderbird, is a summer camp for developmentally disabled youth that is run by <a hrer=”http://questinc.org/”>Quest, Inc</a>. In its 50 year history, the camp has never turned anyone away due to financial limitations. Large projects like this provide much needed work  for the organization. Volunteers at this project also benefited by earning a free pass to Disney through the Hands On network’s Give a Day, Get a Day promotion.

“I’m really excited to go to Disney,” said 14-year-old Preseton, “but it’s really cool knowing that I am helping making the summer safer for other kids.”

Along with Will, John, Skyler and Raquel Soto, a caseworker aide at Great Oaks Village, the group helped spread 600 bags of mulch through the camps two playgrounds.

The group from Milestone Social Services, Inc.  cleared brush to increase visibility from the cabins to the trails and lake. Justin, Jonathan, Andrew and Demetrius along with residential trainers at Milestone Social Services, Inc., Glenise Lillard and Emanuel Smalls, enjoyed their day and are looking forward to future service learning opportunities.

Anna Williams, the assistant program manager at Healthy Families Orange, along with coworkers Joy Williams, lead clinical supervisor; Karen Cino, lead clinical supervisor; and Linder Romera, office coordinator, were on kitchen detail and helped clean the cafeteria inside and out.

“I’ve recommended that youth attend this camp for years when I worked with Children’s Home Society,” said Anna, “but this is my first time ever coming out here. It’s amazing!”

Camp Thunderbird features a ropes course, a five senses garden and a pool for campers to enjoy a real summer camp experience. Chris Allen, executive director of Hands on Orlando, and Danielle Hunsberger, volunteer services manager, coordinated the service event. Participation of foster youth was coordinated by David Fain, AmeriCorps* VISTA member working with Family Services of Metro Orlando.


Foster Youth Receives Student of the Year Award

February 27, 2010

Amidst discouraging statistics, one particular student is rising above her situation on the path to success.

Nearly half of all children in foster care perform academically below grade level – but Micka refuses to be a statistic. Despite entering foster care six years ago, the senior at Timber Creek High School recently received the Student of the Year award for a second time. Cinthia Batista, Micka’s Independent Living Coordinator at Intervention Services, Inc., says Micka’s remarkable ability to stay positive and incredibly goal-oriented attitude causes her to stand out among the 989 other students in her class. She recently returned from a Martin Luther King Junior Day trip to Tallahassee with Elevate Youth Achievement, a program of the Community Service Center in partnership with Family Services. “I want to graduate high school,” Micka stated when asked about her future. “Then, I’m going to college to become a pharmacist. After that, [I want to] mentor troubled young teens.” This special young woman has been accepted into both Florida State University and Florida A&M University, but like many high school seniors does not yet know which one she will attend next Fall.

Micka credits Donna Anderson, her foster mother, JoLynn Schall, the Student and Family Assistance (SAFE) coordinator at her school and Ann Cochrum, who helped her with her college applications, as individuals who have inspired her to pursue her dreams. Additionally, Micka has participated in the district-wide COMPACT Mentoring Program through her school. She credits these sources of encouragement in her life as the foundation for her success thus far.