For 17 years, Harold and Helen Roederer walked Clearwater Beach every Saturday evening, but not to watch the sun set. They went to hand out Gospel tracts to youths in need of guidance, and they went dressed as clowns.
The clowning around ended in 1983.
"We were going to Countryside Christian Center when it was on Cleveland Street," said Harold, 94, a retired aircraft maintenance manager. "Our friends there caught us checking out the work they'd been doing with children at JDC."
When the assistant pastor told the Largo couple to be at the Pinellas Regional Juvenile Detention Center the next night, they went. Twenty-seven years later, they have spent almost every evening at the Clearwater facility. They began volunteering as assistants, and later led all the center's faith-based activities.
"Years ago a man by the name of Tony Jones working at JDC walked out with a letter from Tallahassee that asked, who is your chaplain," said Harold. "I said we don't have a chaplain. He threw the letter in the round can, but a month later, another letter arrived asking the name of your chaplain. Back then, a chaplain at JDC was unheard of."
On Nov. 5, 1996, Harold Roederer was named the juvenile detention center's first volunteer chaplain.
"Sometimes when the children leave they call my parents, whether they're having a good life or not so good," said their daughter, Jean Hall of Largo. "They've had young men stay in the house, and they give them whatever they need — food, money or love."
Harold and Helen are ordained ministers. In 1951, they founded Victory House Ministries, dedicating their lives to helping young people.
Thursday nights, Helen meets one-on-one with the detention center's young women in a special room with a big window across from a desk where an officer can keep watch. It's inside the living quarters — modular housing, called mods. Males and females are secured in the same center, but three mods house the boys, and one houses the girls.
"I let them pour out their hearts," said Helen. "I tell them they're somebody. That they can amount to something and not to let anybody tell them differently.
"Then I let them tell me their troubles, and they have lots. I let them read the Scriptures, if they want to. Sometimes I'm with them an hour, sometimes two."
Last year, more than 2,300 youths were brought to Pinellas' Juvenile Detention Center. They stayed an average of 11 days, but they can stay up to 30 days if a judge decides.
Under the Roederers, the detention center's ministry program grew. Thirteen churches now participate and send volunteers every day but Wednesday, family visiting day. Some groups present plays. Others bring in Christian music. Saturday brings outdoor activities. They also make sure volunteers deliver compassion and hugs.
"What the children want more than anything is a big hug," said Helen. "As soon as you give them a hug, they open up. They're looking for that because every one of them is lonely."
Although Harold Roederer still volunteers at the center, he suffered a heart attack in 2009. He named John Duebel, 37, of Tarpon Springs as the volunteer chaplain that June.
Duebel, a Skycrest Christian School teacher in Clearwater, now oversees the faith-based programs and 60 volunteers from eight denominations.
"The Roederers have made an immeasurable impact on the young people at the Juvenile Detention Center," said Duebel. "During the years most people pick up a golf club or fishing pole, they were busy loving children that most of our society rejects."