Deborah Moore, circuit director for the local Guardian ad Litem programs, fields hundreds of calls daily as part of her and her program's mission to advocate and help local abused and neglected children. Some of her favorite calls are when she and the program are able to help a youth going out on their own through the program's 1st Beginning project.
"It is so rewarding being able to be that resource for the youth, being able to make sure they have what they need," said Moore.
1st Beginnings is a project the GAL Program and its nonprofit Child Advocates II established over a year ago to ensure youth in the child welfare system have what they need to make their first place their first home, a mission the community and community leaders have embraced.
"The 1st Beginnings project is an important step in helping foster youth as they transition to adulthood," said Representative Alan Williams. "The needs of foster care youth do not end after the leave the foster care system and projects and programs like this show our commitment as a community to assist the youth in becoming productive, successful and independent adults."
Ensuring the needs of the youth are met is essential to GAL volunteers and staff.
"These kids have been through so much in their short lives. They shouldn't have to struggle to have a bed to sleep on," said Stuart Zirin, a GAL volunteer advocate and member of the program's Independent Living Committee.
For the Guardian ad Litem program, the 1st Beginnings project is just an extension of its core mission — to help, support and advocate for youth who have been abused and neglected. Every day volunteer advocates stand up for children who have gone through so much and may not have a voice of their own. Guardian ad Litem volunteers are speaking for these children in the court to make sure they have a permanent safe home. They speak up in the education system to make sure these children have the tools for success. They speak up in the community to make sure these children have the same opportunities as their peers.
"Every day we make a difference in the life of a child," said Moore. Children who have a GAL volunteer are half as likely to cycle back into the child welfare system and twice as likely to find a forever family.
Recently when Moore got a call about a youth struggling to set up her own apartment, she and the 1st Beginnings team went to went to work to make sure that youth was taken care of.
Briahnna Banks, 20, has been in and out of the child welfare system. She is currently in Postsecondary Education Services and Support program (PESS), which pays for the youth's education and provides a stipend. She was moving into a new apartment for a fresh start and new beginning as she embarked on her studies at Lively College. The only problem is that she had nothing to put in it.
"It is serious when you are on your own. Before, I had nothing to come home to. I was sleeping on the floor. I had nothing to eat out of. I had one fork," said Banks. "I have been going months and months without. It was hard to sleep at night just worrying about how I was going to make it."
Moore immediately reached out to a 1st Beginnings community supporter, the iServe program at Killearn United Methodist Church. The iServe program runs the Sweet Dreams project, which provides bed for youths in the child welfare system.
"Everyone, especially a child, deserves to sleep in their own bed at night," said John Cousins, a member of the iServe program at Killearn United Methodist Church.
For Banks, having her own bed brought her to tears.
"It gave me hope. I am taking these big steps to maturity. This is boosting me up. The things I needed, I now have. I don't have to worry and stress. I can focus on what I need to- school," said Banks.
Moore also set up Banks to come to the 1st Beginnings storage unit where the program has set up a sort of store. The program accepts donated items of new household items and furniture and then youth come and shop for free for what they want.
"I am not from here. Now I can design my place the way I want it to be and make it my home," said Banks who got dishes, chairs, lamps, pictures and other items from the storage area.
Zirin, who spends many a day at the storage unit helping youth shop for their first place, says every time he helps a youth he realizes the importance of the project.
"They are just so grateful. They smile and you know the difference you have made," said Zirin. "They need someone to help them. Even though they are technically adults, they still need to be taken care of."
Moore knows that the 1st Beginnings project will continue to grow and help the young adults as they venture out on their own. The program continues to garner community support and partners. For her and the other GAL volunteers, it is about helping one youth at a time have a better future, like Banks.
"I can't say what this means except to say, thank you. Thank you for coming through for me and other kids like me. It makes a difference like you would not believe," said Banks. "I am blessed."
For more information on the 1st Beginnings project, please call Deborah Moore at 850-606-1213. For more information about the Guardian ad Litem program or how to become an advocate, please visit www.gal2.org or call 850-606-1213.
Ellen Piekalkiewicz is the executive director of United Partners for Human Services. She has more than 25 years of experience working for statewide organizations, local nonprofits and federal agencies.