PLANT CITY — The wooden picnic benches inside the dimmed pavilion had an array of bright colored balloons that could be seen throughout the area.
Individuals happily and anxiously made their way to their seats at Lupton’s Boggy Bottom Event Ranch for the 28th annual Foster Family Care Picnic. Nearly 600 attended the March 4 gathering, turning the 200-acre property into a place of excitement and joy as kids participated in numerous activities.
In the distance one could hear the loud sound of a hammer coming from Devon, 13, as he drove a small silver nail into a wooden frame to construct a tulip flower pot. This would be his first time putting something together.
Jonas, 17, created a silver and black beaded necklace for his mother. He felt good about being at the ranch.
Taya, 13, tried gem mining and discovered a favorite like the rose quartz.
Others had an opportunity to play volleyball, dodgeball, basketball, rock climb, go on the playground, and much more. In addition, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office District II brought the aviation and K-9 units. The Florida Highway Patrol conducted a demonstration, which included a crash rollover simulator that went 30 miles per hour.
"It is a great experience to see the partnership with the entire community, to bring us all together to help out the foster parents and foster kids all while showing them what community is all about," said HCSO Dep. Josh Boyer.
The event occurred despite all the challenges facing the agency that oversees foster care in Hillsborough County. Eckerd Connects faces a $4.1 million shortfall, and has come under increased scrutiny as it has struggled to cope with caring for the state’s highest foster child population.
Earlier this month it fired Youth and Family Alternatives from a $9.2 million contract after finding a pattern of case managers leaving older foster children unattended. A shortage of foster beds also led to children sleeping in unlicensed facilities including an office and a teen recreation center in 2016.
Still, Ralph J. Lupton, Jr. and his wife Nancy Lupton, along with their family members, remain committed. They established Lupton’s Boggy Bottom Event Ranch in 1969. Ralph conducts a picnic for the foster families and kids because he feels this would be the only way to give back. During his early years he did get adopted.
"I want to help others do the same because every volunteer here that is a part of the foster children’s lives would be something they will never get back," Ralph said.
At one point during the event, individuals lined up in a designated area to hold a slithering reptile such as a small king snake. A few kids looked a bit squirmish once the snake got placed into their hands. Those nearby seemed uneasy and glanced away.
Furthermore, one could see multiple green, blue and other colored foam balls being thrown at one another in a yellow-fenced in arena during a dodgeball game. It drew a crowd as they cheered on the players. Some fell to the ground while attempting to avoid being hit.
"Overall, the event reached various interests for families and great to see the enjoyment in their faces," said Tianay Lewis, interim director of licensing for Eckerd Connects Hillsborough County.
Contact Tatiana Ortiz at [email protected]