Harbor Style November 2017 : Page 62
62 | H ARBOR STYLE
A Home & Family Of Their Own
Crossroads Hope Academy is a “place of hope for kids without hope.”
This time of year, especially at Thanksgiving, we are surrounded with images of the perfect family gathered around the perfect table with a perfectly cooked turkey dinner with “all the fixins” surrounded by perfect relatives and perfect extended family, all meeting within the perfect house on the perfect street. That might have worked back in the day and world of Norman Rockwell images, but in today’s world, things are often a different story.
Imagine having no perfect family. In fact, imagine having no family at all. Imagine, if your mind’s eye will allow it, that there isn’t even a meal. There is no cause for celebration. Imagine yelling and screaming. Imagine contrarian situations. Imagine feelings of, “If my parents didn’t want kids, why did they have me?” Imagine the thought, “I don’t want to live with that kind of violence any more.” Think about it for a moment.
It is equally not easy or “perfect” if you are one who has had difficulties establishing relationships. It’s not easy when you feel rejected or discarded as useless. It is not easy to be hopeful for the future, your attitude adjusted to pessimism and anger in a world where you see others enjoying those types of relationships when nothing is working for you. It’s not an easy scenario to cope with, especially as an adolescent maturing into adulthood. There is rejection, hostility and animosity.
Imagine, even further, young men who have nothing left to call “normal” –young men without families who have become difficult to place into foster homes because all these issues rage within their minds. Time after time, their lives are just not what they ought to be, for whatever the circumstances. It is difficult to find hope in situations that fall apart and relationships that are broken. Whether it is the fault of others, or their own, they leave yet another placement. Their attitudes suffer, the weight of the difficulty and the now-multiple rejections color their minds. Time after time, week after week, things fail and hope begins to dim for these foster kids.
It’s a hard reality to think about.
But it is exactly the reality that the staff of Crossroads Hope Academy enters each day. They literally become the guides to what might be the “last chance” at turning things around. They are a “place of hope for kids without hope.”
A Home & Family
Located 20 miles outside of Punta Gorda, Crossroads Hope Academy is a nonprofit 501(c)3 home and charter school for foster boys who have had multiple failed placements in Florida’s 23,000-child state foster care system. The difference for these kids, perhaps for the first time, is they have found a place with a road map towards the hope of a new way of living. What one sees at Crossroads is a complete integration of a holistic approach to meeting the needs of these foster children. In a word, it becomes their family.
“We get the toughest kids that the State of Florida has in the foster care system,” said Charles Gomilla, director of operations at Crossroads. “Some of the kids have had up to 50 failed placements.” Over time, this obviously leads to a great number of issues for these teenagers. With no functional past, the present is difficult and the future is bleak. “They have a hard time buying into trusting others after all they have seen and been through,” he added.
Gomilla knows Crossroads provides “more than just finding a purpose in life. It also helps them accept what they have been through in the past and to the difficulty of living in the current situations that they are finding themselves in.”
The reality of those situations are found in statistics that suggest that 1 in 5 foster children are incarcerated by age 22, while 1 in 4 foster children are homeless by the same age.
Crossroads Hope Academy addresses the situations for these young men who have had multiple failed placements within the Florida foster care system. Its campus on Bermont Road houses administrative offices, counseling space, a work shop, dorms, mess hall and a charter school with low student-to-teacher ratios.
With buildings that resemble more of a summer camp than an institution, the facility is where Crossroads staff works hard at helping these young men make transitions. The transition from family life as broken and dysfunctional as one can imagine towards a new and more positive solution set is often an unimaginably difficult proposition. Some kids have such difficult combinations of issues that the current foster care system is not well equipped to handle. As a result, they move from failed placement to failed placement without any attention ever given to their needs. In the process, their selfesteem suffers, they fall behind in school, or they give up all together and drop out. With little other good things going on in their lives, many walk away from everything and become homeless.
According to Crossroads Executive Director John Davidson, it takes the kids about 90 days as an incoming resident to become acclimated to the 24-bed facility. “Usually we see buy in on their parts in around Six months,” he said. “When we get the right kids to fit into the system we have here, we begin to see results.”
Getting these young men to begin to even attempt to fit in is filled with difficulty.
Crossroads specializes in boys aged between 12 and 18 years old. They are taken in and given a stable home, which for many is the first that they have ever known.
On average, these boys have been through at least 14 failed placements before they find their home at Crossroads Hope Academy. It is amazingly clear how the staff and teachers invest in the kids, that they believe the kids are worth it, even if the teens are slow to get on board with the thought. Dedicated fulltime care is given to psychological difficulties that might present themselves as well.
It is hard to define what the “average” Crossroads resident might look like given the variety of complex difficulties these teens face. Several have backgrounds of parental and personal substance abuse, sexual abuse, neglect or combinations of any or all of these situations. According to Susie Holliday, a masters-level clinical social worker on the Crossroads team, “most incoming teens have behavioral concerns due to the lack Of basic skills sets. Some lack the ability to govern their emotional responses to situations and, as such, act out.” This is a hard, tough, gritty and challenging process for the kids. Group counseling, individual counseling and the integration of life skills all bring solutions to these complex situations.
Holiday sets out to work with the teens as part of a larger team. She helps them realize that they need to put the “puzzle pieces” together and build skill sets for the first time in their lives. “When those fall into place, the teens can better learn to regulate their emotional responses.” As that happens, she said, “they start to realize that their pasts do not have to dictate their present or describe their future.”
Every member of the staff at Crossroads is connected to the team approach they follow in their work. The goal of the agency is “to achieve a stable and enriched learning environment, to provide the tools to the boys so that they can survive in the world. To teach each boy what society expects from him and what he should expect from himself along with learning to love who they are. We are their family and Crossroads Hope Academy is their home.”
Crossroads Hope Academy is a licensed charter school affiliated with the Charlotte County Public Schools. The school provides a variety of classes as would any school but accomplishes the task with classes that usually hold about eight students, a much smaller ratio to work with the exceptional and very dedicated staff. They engage in the usual classes – math, science, computer lab, English and social studies – as well as hands-on vocational training in carpentry, plumbing and electrical work. This experiential study can lead to certificates after testing within the program. They also have a handson food service training program in the culinary arts. The goal of this program leads to a Safe Serve Certificate, allowing them to get a job within the food service industry.
The school also allows the kids to take ownership with experiential training for the things that they need. They maintain gardens in which they grow their own food, an orchard that furnishes fruits like bananas, and there are chickens, which produce a good volume of eggs used in the food service.
Giving Kids a Future
Crossroads became a full-time foster program in 2013, transitioning from a 30-bed, Level 6 state juvenile justice facility. It was not an easy situation to accomplish, but Davidson points out that they did it for the kids. “Birthday parties are a big deal around here” he said, referring to the fact that some kids have made it to age 15 without even a birthday party to call their own. The fact that these kids have so little drives Davidson’s passion for the work he conducts. “They’re just kids,” he said, “We must never forget they are just kids and we cannot abandon them.”
This positive caring team attitude is modeled each day by the entire staff. They model behavior that acts as a guide, allowing each child to reconnect with the better parts of themselves that have become jumbled in the maze of foster care. At Crossroads, they have the opportunity to belong and create relationships with others, most for the first time in their lives. They can move forward.
Kids cannot help but respond well to the positive atmosphere that is apparent at Crossroads. While the students are expected to be mindful of the role they play within the community, they also are held accountable for their actions. At the same time, they receive positive affirmations that are, for many, the first in their short lifetimes. They are recognized for their individual contribution to the community and held to high regard for it. Relational glue is not simply talked about at the facility. It is lived out by modeling and application each and every day.
All of this hard and dedicated work is not without results. Of course, there are a few who feel entitled and simply cannot make this work for them, although the number is quite low. But the vast majority of Crossroads Hope Academy teens are on track for graduation from high school, for college, for the military, their GED – in short, their future. Crossroads consistently helps these teens find their way by first creating and then maintaining positive role models that provide the teens with the tools they need to sort through their past, stabilize their present and move toward a better future. It might mean equipping them with the tools needed for a successful home placement or equipping them with independent living skills. Crossroad’s desire is to help the kids become stable and successful. They live out a preferred future for the kids, and the kids respond.
Crossroads has a special “Crossing Over Ceremony” for those turning 18. Symbolic of the shift from youth to adult, as well as celebrating the completion of their time at the school, this marks the beginning of the time for the student to be taking their next steps into The world. During their time at Crossroads Hope Academy, they have seen by word and deed that their past should not define what their future might be. It is equally significant to note that those who have “graduated” from the program continue to come back and support the mission of the facility with their continued involvement
Involving the Community
Residents who have lived around Punta Gorda for some time are familiar with the school’s fundraising efforts. The local “Movie Nights” as well as the sale of items the kids actually made in the woodshop all raise funds for the operational budget. In addition, there are cookoffs, fishing tournaments, a few gifts from church missional budgets and a host of other community partnerships that engage in giving to Crossroads so that these kids can make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others.
As with any nonprofit, there are always needs. However, right now, Crossroads has special needs stemming from Hurricane Irma, which left its mark with a good bit of devastation. In addition to standard operational costs, additional funds are now needed just to bring the property back to the place it was before the storm. The facilities are in need of freshening up and Irma did little to beautify anything.
Yet it isn’t simply about money. “What matters here are relationships,” Davidson said. “These kids have had to deal with life mostly on their own, without meaningful relationships.
“One can enter the room of any teenager in a modern home to be met by countless number of pictures and items that bear a silent testimony to past relationships and accomplishments. You would expect trophies, class pictures, pictures of family members as well as dear friends. You would expect the walls to be plastered with things of importance. Our kids, sad to say, have nothing on their walls.”
When asked about how local residents could engage or mentor these kids, Davidson felt it more important to let things grow organically. “We urge any and everybody who might be interested to come and do what’s necessary to get to know these kids,” he said. That can start as easily with a visit at a birthday party to see what is happening at Crossroads or just getting to know one of the teens there. “Just start somewhere and then let things take their course.”
It is easy to see these teens are benefiting from their time at Crossroads. The outside world might look on foster kids as somehow being the problem, instead of realizing that the systemic lack of appropriate support for these children present in our society is the bigger issue here. There are things that can be done to make a dent into that, and Crossroads does it well. They’d love to see their support team grow since everyone is part of a process to make the lives of these kids better.
A great way to become involved – in addition to the traditional gift of monetary support – is to consider becoming a tutor. Classroom aides, kitchen aides and help with facility upkeep are also ways to get involved. Simply starting a relationship with one of the kids and seeing where it will take you might be some of the most exciting and valuable volunteer work you’ll ever do. To see such a dedicated administrative staff, a dedicated counseling staff and talented teaching staff all at work as a team to the betterment of these kids who came in “without a prayer” is remarkable. It is truly what makes this part of Florida such a great place to live.
The fact that our community has a facility like Crossroads Hope Academy dedicated to the health and well being of these kids who, through no fault of their own, have been through all they have experienced should strike a thankful chord throughout the community. Financial support as well as relational interaction with the kids would promote the future well being of all concerned.
So maybe the old images won’t work, and it won’t be the perfect family Thanksgiving this year. When you have a facility like Crossroads Hope Academy doing the good work that they do, by helping kids find their way, perhaps that is a great place to start. The world is a better place as a result.
For additional information, visit www.crossroadspg.org.