SEMINOLE — His heft and tentative smile hide a lifetime of hurts.
He doesn't remember when his mother gave him away, but Jeff Prestenback says the woman who took him in was a true parent. Then she died.
And that began his life as a nomad. He was 11.
By Jeff's estimate, he was sent to "well over 10" foster and group homes across west-central Florida. Port Richey, Plant City and Orlando were among his stops.
There were four high schools and any number of apartments. In the past year, he has moved five times.
Now 20, Jeff counts one constant in his life: Joe Incorvia, a husband and father of six adult children — two birth children, two adopted and "two that moved in and never left."
Incorvia is a volunteer for the state's Guardian ad Litem Program. Court-appointed to help Jeff at 15, Incorvia has remained in the young man's life, even after he "aged out" of foster care, encouraging him to study for his high school diploma, learn to drive and register to vote. There are also tutoring sessions and meals at McDonald's and Burger King and invitations to family gatherings at Incorvia's Safety Harbor home. Today, the two will attend a Tampa Bay Rays game honoring the program. Rays first baseman James Loney and his wife, Nadia, who have made a public service announcement for the program, will be honored at the game.
Recently Jeff tried to sum up his gratitude to Incorvia in a birthday card.
"Thank you for everything you have done for me throughout the years," he wrote. "I am really thankful to have someone like you in my life. You're like a father to me."
Incorvia, 65, said it was one of his daughters and a niece who encouraged him to become a guardian ad litem. "Jeff was moving from various foster homes and just needed someone he could rely on," said Incorvia, a planner for the city of Pinellas Park.
"Joe is just one of our many amazing volunteers," said Donna Rasmussen, director of the Guardian ad Litem Program for Pinellas and Pasco counties. "We have amazing volunteers."
But there's a need for more, she said.
"We have more women than men. We would like to have more African-Americans, especially African-American males. … About 51 percent of the kids are boys," Rasmussen said.
Guardian ad litem volunteers are appointed by the court to advocate for children who have been abused or neglected.
"The guardian often becomes the role model for the child, a mentor, a friend, confidante, but what I think is the important thing, is a consistent, caring adult for the child," said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the statewide program.
For Incorvia, that means helping Jeff with math as he works toward his high school diploma from the Clearwater Adult Education Center.
"I hate math with a passion," Jeff said in an interview over lunch.
"Guess what he has to take to graduate," Incorvia countered.
Incorvia also enlisted a retired Pinellas County sheriff's deputy, Daryl Waterman, to help Jeff prepare for the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. Jeff, who wants to join the Army, said he enjoyed being in the ROTC and rose to the rank of master sergeant at Clearwater High School, which he attended for two years. It was his longest stay at any high school.
Jeff, who has no car, computer or cellphone, lives with a friend in Seminole. He is job hunting.
"Actually, I'm not just looking for one job. I'm looking for two. I don't care what it is," he said.
Incorvia and his wife, Sandra, take Jeff back and forth to his Wednesday classes in Clearwater.
Incorvia recalled that under the old rules of foster care, he could not take Jeff on outings. Their visits were confined to Jeff's group homes.
"We pretty much talked about how I was doing in school and we would go outside and play a game of catch," Jeff said.
A new Florida law that went into effect July 1 gives foster parents more leeway to make decisions about children in their care, such as letting them go on sleepovers and participate in extracurricular activities. Additionally, starting Jan. 1, 2014, young people will have the option of remaining in foster care until the age of 21 as they finish high school, earn a GED, go on to post-secondary education or start jobs.
Jeff couldn't wait to get out on his own.
"I was actually trying to get out before I was 18," he said. "I absolutely hated foster homes. A lot were pretty crappy. Group homes were worse than I thought."
But he didn't succeed under the independent living program for youths who had aged out of foster care.
"I messed up," he confessed. "There were a lot of choices that I made that were bad."
Like a parent, Incorvia came to his defense. "He's a good person working to stay that way in some very uncomfortable places sometimes," he said.
Jack Levine, founder of 4Generations Institute and a 34-year advocate for the Guardian ad Litem Program, said he admires volunteers like Incorvia.
"What I frequently come away with in my conversation with guardians ad litem is that they're experts at creating a positive path for a child whose life story has been one of sadness and, lots of time, personal pain. What's amazing to me is they don't know how long it will take," Levine said.
"Jeff was basically my first case," Incorvia said. "I have been working with him pretty hard to graduate from high school. When he and I met with school officials a few months ago, they said he was very, very close to graduating. We're going to get a lot of people out for his graduation. It'll be soon."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.