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Sister Claire LeBoeuf finds her calling . . . for needy children, adults, grandparents to build a home


CAPTION:  (TAMPA, FL -- 04/01/2008)  Sister Claire LeBoeuf wants to build an inter-generational foster community on her farm in Thonotosassa.  She’s got everything planned and expects the zoning change - her final hurdle - to be approved April 1.  (MELISSA LYTTLE | Times)

TP_285720_LYTT_LDFOSTERNUN

CAPTION: (TAMPA, FL -- 04/01/2008) Sister Claire LeBoeuf wants to build an inter-generational foster community on her farm in Thonotosassa. She’s got everything planned and expects the zoning change - her final hurdle - to be approved April 1. (MELISSA LYTTLE | Times)

THONOTOSASSA

In the vacant, scrubby fields surrounding her double-wide mobile home, the nun sees houses. Two-story structures with porches, playrooms and seven bedrooms.

She sees duplexes, too, a cluster strewn along shady sidewalks.

There's a chapel in her dream, tucked between the live oaks, and a large meeting room for birthday parties and sewing lessons. Plus homes for all the therapists the children could need.

The nun, who took a vow of chastity, wants at least 40 kids.

The nun, who took a vow of poverty, wants to raise $50-million.

She has the architect's sketches, the engineer's estimates. For four years, she's been trying to rezone her land.

In May, she hopes to get the county's final approval to turn her 72-acre ranch into the village she knows she has to build.

• • •

In some ways, Sister Claire LeBoeuf says, her whole life has been aimed toward creating this community. She grew up on a New Hampshire farm with an older brother and two devoted parents. When she was 13, her mother died; soon after, her brother moved out and her father remarried. She no longer felt welcome in her home.

At 17, she became a Sister of Holy Cross — searching, she says, for a place to belong.

She's 65 now. In some ways, she's still on the same quest.

"I know what it's like to live in a home where your parents love you unconditionally. And I know what it's like to live in a home where you don't feel wanted," she says. "I think that has fueled my passion for wanting to find every child a home where they know people care."

She has not been part of a traditional family for 50 years, but plans to create dozens of them.

• • •

In 1985, she moved onto the secluded pasture outside Tampa to supervise a residential program that helped mothers regain custody of their children after the state had taken them away.

By 1998 she was overseeing a foster care center called Everyday Blessings. It takes in up to 36 kids, from infants to age 10, who live in dorm rooms with a caregiver. "We get the ones who have been bounced around the most," says Sister Claire. Older children, groups of siblings who might otherwise be split up.

It breaks her heart, she says, to watch these kids grow up without a real home or family. No wonder they're angry. No wonder they don't trust anyone.

She knows senior citizens, too, folks who are widowed, nuns who never married, people who love kids but don't have any of their own, or whose own children are grown and gone. Just like foster kids, they're displaced and lonely, searching for somewhere to belong.

Four years ago, Sister Claire heard about a place called Hope Meadows in Rantoul, Ill., an intergenerational community where foster kids find siblings and parents and surrogate grandparents. And would-be parents find kids and help. And seniors find children and adults who need them — and people who don't have traditional families build their own.

"There are 400 children just in Hillsborough County who are available for adoption, but we can't find homes for them," Sister Claire says. "At least 70 percent of them could come here. And people who could never afford their own houses could move into one with seven bedrooms."

• • •

She wants to populate her land with families. Three generations of families with lots of brothers and sisters and well-trained parents, plus grandparents — right there in the neighborhood.

Here's her plan: She wants to form families for the children who are most difficult to get adopted: kids age 8 and older, groups of siblings.

Up to 10 couples who are willing to adopt at least four children each would move into their own furnished, seven-bedroom house in "The Village" for a year or more, paying a reduced rent of about $500 a month. One parent would work outside the community. The other would receive about $20,000 a year to stay home and care for the kids. Financial advisers would help the parents for free, so that by the time they're ready to leave, they can afford their own home. Therapists would work with new families on bonding and coping. Counselors would be on hand to help during crises. And there would be surrogate grandparents right next door.

Up to 36 senior citizens, singles or couples, would move into duplexes and stay indefinitely, paying reduced rent on the two- and three-bedroom apartments. They would have to volunteer at least six hours a week, tutoring, babysitting, doing yard work, mentoring the parents, playing cards with the kids.

"My vision is to find people who have a missionary spirit, middle or low-middle class people who might not be able to afford their own home but who love children. Here, they will help each other bond and function as a real community. Most families who adopt don't get any support. I want to give them enough support so they don't fall apart."

A few years ago, Sister Claire shared her plan with Luanne Panacek, CEO of the Hillsborough County Children's Board. "I thought it was a dream," Panacek says. "It was so bold: trying to create an entire community that understands the needs of these kids. Sister Claire just kept saying, 'It shouldn't take this long.' "

• • •

Sister Claire wants to break ground by June. This time next year, she says, families could start moving in. All she needs now is money: $5-million just to start laying water lines.

"I have no idea where my first nickel is going to come from. But God will provide," she says, "or Raymond James, or Mr. Sembler or that Jabil executive . . ."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

. FAST FACTS

How to help

Sister Claire LeBoeuf can be reached at (813) 982-9226, ext. 234; cell (813) 924-1922; e-mail everybless@aol.com. The Village at Everyday Blessings is at 13133 St. Francis Lane, Thonotosassa, FL 33592-4232.

Sister Claire LeBoeuf finds her calling . . . for needy children, adults, grandparents to build a home 04/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 3:37pm]

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