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In four foster homes, children get a chance to be 'normal'

The children chose the curtains and bedspreads. The boys went with a military camouflage theme, the girls, neon-bright polka dots and stripes.

Florene Baker showed off the newly decorated rooms and conceded that they weren't exactly her style, but these rooms were the children's — for as long as they needed them.

The four girls and two boys are in foster care, settled with their siblings in a stable, long-term home in a tiny St. Petersburg community called the Children's Village.

In town recently, George H. Sheldon, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, told a luncheon audience that foster care children crave stability and normalcy.

"If you talk to these kids,'' he said, "you hear them say, 'I want to be normal.' ''

Normalcy is the goal of the Salvation Army program, with its four unidentifiable five-bedroom homes tucked into a cul-de-sac off 34th Street N. It's where children removed from their families for abuse or neglect can grow up with their brothers and sisters in the same home and often with the same unrelated adults they frequently refer to as mom and dad.

The adults who head the homes are professional parents, paid to nurture, cook, clean and perform the myriad tasks connected to raising children. For Baker, who has five adult children of her own and 14 grandchildren, the job is invigorating.

"They energize me,'' she said of her brood of six. "I wake up running.''

Rachel Armstrong, another Children's Village parent, gets satisfaction from working to create a stable home for the youngsters who often arrive at her doorstep frightened and sad.

"One of our biggest goals with these kids is seeing them happy and seeing them be a kid, playing with their toys without any worries and laughing,'' said Armstrong, 33, who cares for four girls and two boys with her husband, Ben.

Children's Village is run by the Salvation Army, a subcontractor for Eckerd Community Alternatives, the nonprofit agency hired by the DCF last year to oversee foster care in Pinellas and Pasco counties. The Salvation Army also is a subcontractor for Hillsborough Kids Inc.

The village concept is unique nationally and is patterned on an international program, SOS Children's Villages, said Karen Braun, director of children's services for the Salvation Army.

In St. Petersburg, the program hires parents to head households of six children each. Homes can be headed by a single parent or a married couple, though only one is paid. The parent on the Salvation Army payroll is not allowed to hold an outside job.

The type of person who fits this role?

"An angel on earth,'' Braun said without hesitation. "They commit their entire life to the job.''

Parents receive mandated training and generally remain about four years. Other caregivers called respite parents step in to allow them time off and sometimes take over permanently when regular parents leave the job.

The Armstrongs' home, like the other three in the planned neighborhood, is a sprawling 3,500 square feet. The children, ages 4 to 13, double up, two to a bedroom. The couple has the master suite, which in keeping with village policy is off limits to the children and other staffers. One bedroom is assigned to the respite parent.

School days start at 6, with Rachel Armstrong driving the older children to their respective schools. The hours before they return are filled with housework and preschool activities for the youngest child. The couple says their two washing machines and two dryers "are pretty much running all the time'' and that afternoons are jam-packed with homework, tutoring and therapy sessions, athletics, clubs and numerous other activities.

The Armstrongs have established rules for their large group, emphasizing respect for other people, their property and privacy. Sometimes, said Ben Armstrong, 26, they have to teach the basics: "The toilet gets flushed. Make sure you brush your teeth and shower every day.''

Their mission is to make each child feel secure and happy, his wife said. "We try to make it as close to a real family as we can,'' she said.

Parents like the Armstrongs provide structure to young lives that were chaotic, said Bruce Wesolowski, who as program manager for Children's Village works out of a nearby unmarked office building.

While parents establish rules for their own households, they must adhere to state and Children's Village guidelines. They complete daily logs and care for the children under the scrutiny of case managers, guardians ad litem and others, who "watch and judge every move you make," Ben Armstrong said. "You live in a glass bowl.''

At the same time, he and his wife said they value the support they get from the program's staff and other village parents. Their rewards come from watching the joy as siblings are reunited, grades improve and attitudes change, the couple said.

It is bittersweet when children leave. Some are adopted or reunited with their families. "It's amazing how attached you get to these children,'' Ben Armstrong said.

And the children to them.

Recently, one rushed through the front door clutching wildflowers and a paper cutout of her tiny hand. They were handed to Rachel Armstrong, who began tucking the blossoms into the 4-year-old's hair.

The little girl quickly stopped her. "No, that's for you,'' she said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

In four foster homes, children get a chance to be 'normal' 06/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 6, 2009 4:30am]

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