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Haven for abused kids in West Tampa celebrates its opening

Mary Lee's House stands as a haven for abused children in West Tampa.

And it doesn't stand alone.

The one-stop, state-of-the-art child protection and advocacy center officially opened in November, and its officials quickly discovered that its neighbors are warm and welcoming. The center's location on N Armenia Avenue just south of Columbus Drive has already yielded dividends, executive director Lisa Colen said.

"The sense of community here is so strong," she added.

On Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mary Lee's House stages "Celebrating Children," a three-hour family friendly event that will feature free lunch and snacks, arts and crafts, games and door prizes.

Colen noted that her celebration dovetails perfectly with Tampa Theatre's outdoor series, which will have a free screening of Field of Dreams at the West Tampa Little League facility at 6 p.m. Saturday. The West Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Colen said, has gone above and beyond in supporting both events.

"We want to provide leadership and business opportunities, but we also want to preserve the historical values of the West Tampa community," said Bob Garcia, the chamber's executive director. "In any way we can help (Mary Lee's House), we want to do it."

Both Garcia and Colen agree that the collaboration is good for everyone. Such mutually beneficial situations are common at Mary Lee's House, even though it deals with one of society's most difficult problems.

Based on a national model, the facility brings together child protection and advocacy groups so children who need to be assessed for abuse can be treated under one roof in a friendly environment. The previous system required the child and family to visit various offices.

Now, the Child Protection Team and the Children's Advocacy Center share the second floor of the 30,000-square-foot facility, conducting medical examinations and abuse allegation interviews. Law enforcement, prosecutors and public defenders all have office space in the center, but the design speaks exclusively to children.

The waiting room comes with toys and furnishings. The Lincoln Logs, games and stuffed animals often end up going home with kids. A colorful "Candyland" mural, painted by the USF Fine Arts Club, adorns a second-floor wall.

In short, an ugly act no longer is treated in an ugly place. That's good for the child, the family and the professionals.

"We try to reduce the amount of unpleasantness you have to deal with," said David Banghart, senior child protection specialist.

The first floor houses various advocacy agencies including the Healthy Start Coalition, Child Abuse Council and the APPLE Trauma Center.

Colen likes to say the downstairs is working to put the upstairs out of business, but it's no easy task. Since November, officials have conducted 317 medical exams and 164 interviews.

When a challenging moment is made easier, everyone can take pride, including Mary Lee Nunnally Farrior. She helped establish her house with $1 million in seed money and an unyielding personal drive that resulted in the public-private partnership.

On Saturday, they will celebrate the lives of children, the heroes such as Farrior and a West Tampa community that cherishes its role in helping kids.

That's all I'm saying.

Haven for abused kids in West Tampa celebrates its opening 04/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:41pm]
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