CLEARWATER — Shelly Leonard, 37, came to the launch of the "Milk Party" campaign Monday afternoon to find out one thing.
What will the Children's Movement of Florida do to help local children with special needs?
Leonard, a Clearwater resident, has two sons with muscular disabilities. She couldn't find adequate schooling for them in Florida, so both now attend a special needs school in Wisconsin.
David Lawrence Jr., co-chairman of the Children's Movement, had an answer for her: Improving the state of Florida's special needs education will be "fundamental" to the group's mission.
Parents in the room nodded with approval.
Lawrence, former Miami Herald publisher, spoke to about 100 parents, teachers and child advocates Monday as part of the kickoff of the campaign, a statewide, nonpartisan effort to raise awareness about Florida's children.
The event, at the Holiday Inn at 3535 Ulmerton Road, was sponsored by the Children's Movement. The purpose of the "Milk Party," Lawrence said, is to encourage business leaders and politicians to push for issues such as quality children's health care and parent education.
"I've worked on these issues in the local arena, and out of that came the wisdom that this could be done through the whole state," Lawrence said after the rally. "There has been no bipartisan group gathered like this in my lifetime or in your lifetime."
The rally was one of four that took place throughout the state Monday. The others were in Miami, Orlando and Tallahassee.
Lawrence admonished the state for planning to spend $2.7 billion to construct a network of high-speed trains when, he said, it cannot adequately fund education and child welfare programs.
Lawrence trotted out local educators and activists from both sides of the political divide. Speakers included Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen, former University of South Florida president Betty Castor and Hispanic public opinion researcher Sergio Bendixen.
"I think we have the potential to become one of the most powerful political forces in the state of Florida," Bendixen said.
As for Leonard, she said the rally gave her hope.
"I was intrigued by it," she said. "I'm optimistic that with this kind of bipartisanship, and by seeking to involve the community, this group is likely to make a difference."