The children often arrive at Joshua House bewildered and traumatized, some carrying their few belongings in a pillowcase.
Most are there because they have been acting out in foster care. For a few, the therapeutic foster group home in Lutz is their first stop after being taken away from their parents.
Since it opened in 1992, Joshua House has provided a home for more than 2,000 children.
But with Hillsborough on track to take a record number of children into care this year, the center has been at capacity for much of the year, making it a struggle to feed, clothe and find bedding for the children it serves.
"As soon as the bed is empty, there's another child coming," said DeDe Grundel, executive director of the Friends of the Joshua House auxiliary.
Grundel estimates that the shelter will run out of many essentials over the next few months. It only has enough feminine hygiene products to last through March and sufficient bedding and towels to make it through June. There is always a demand for clothes, especially socks. The center also needs food, especially dry products like cereal, and household items like light bulbs.
"The boy's house is a black hole for cereal and milk," Grundel said.
• • •
On the first day of the school holidays, staff and volunteers set up a classroom activity for children to paint the iconic Florida drinking glasses known as Tervis tumblers.
"Alright Joshua House, we're ready for you," Grundel yells across the grounds in the direction of the three houses where children live.
The activity is intended to replace the structure provided by a regular school day. Too much free time can mean children dwell on their situation.
Located in a quiet suburban neighborhood, Joshua House is something of a sanctuary. The 11-acre shelter dotted with mature oak trees is licensed to house 36 children ages 6 to 17. Children are housed together based on age and gender. Staff are on hand 24 hours a day.
The children placed here need therapy to deal with the trauma of abuse or neglect. That can include children whose parents were addicts or had mental health issues. Others are the victims of sexual abuse or low self-esteem because they feel unwanted.
New arrivals are often severely withdrawn. Mood swings and bouts of anger are common.
A priority for staff at the center is to make all children feel like they have their own place. They are told that the comforters, stuffed toys, clothes and toiletries they are given are theirs to keep no matter where their next home is.
The approach is important, giving children a sense of place. But it means bedding and clothes leave the center about as fast as they come in, Grundel said.
It can take several months of therapy to help children recognize and be able to deal with the emotions that bubble up inside them.
Staff at the shelter's therapy center use toys, sand pits and board games to engage children and make it easier for them to talk about their past and their feelings. Another approach is to ask the children to pick toy figures to represent their family.
"Kids don't always have the words to explain," said therapist Elaine Colon. "It's much easier for them to act it out."
Expression is encouraged in their bedrooms too. Every child has a chalk block on the wall close to their bed where they can write down their feelings.
"Take me home," reads one girl's chalk block. "I am a loner," says another.
• • •
Joshua House is on pace to record about 200 children as temporary residents by the end of the year — 50 more than in an average year. They are among the 1,500 children removed from their homes in Hillsborough during 2016 — the most in at least the last six years.
The shelter is run by the Children's Home Society of Florida. About 60 percent of funding comes from the state. Donations and fund drives make up the rest.
Christmas Day is one of the days when children most keenly feel the loss of their home life. They may wake excited about what gifts they will unwrap. But by mid-afternoon, many are left disappointed and hurt that they didn't get a promised phone call from their parents.
The holiday season also brings heart-wrenching stories like that of a recent new arrival who just learned her mother had recently gone to court to terminate her parental rights.
"She said she didn't want a gift," Grundel said of the girl. "She wanted to buy her mother something so she would love her."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times