Recently, I was invited to speak at the Community United Methodist Church's summer camp for children from homeless and poor families. More than 100 elementary school tykes attended. The weeklong camp offers fun, recreation, meals and education to these disadvantaged kids. Although I have no qualms about speaking in front of large groups, I must admit a certain nervousness addressing this unusual group of youngsters.
Also entertaining the kids was McGruff, the lovable mascot of the Sheriff's Office. We spent the afternoon with these youths. I helped McGruff dress in a trench coat, gloves, and full-headed mask. I watched the children gather round to seek hugs and photo ops from the "Take a Bite Out of Crime" hound.
Eight small groups rotated through the sanctuary enjoying the mime McGruff with his speaking assistant. After each presentation, a perspiring McGruff would remove his costume, cool down, and dress again. While he rested in the dressing room, I performed.
I was asked to use humor and consider a costume as I spoke to the children. Such an opportunity proved irresistible. I had my "old man" rubber mask and an assortment of hats, two giant sequined red and gold bow ties, and a clown nose to entertain the kids.
Of course, I wore my lab coat with a stethoscope in the pocket. I spoke about good health practices such as washing your hands and brushing your teeth. I stressed the importance of exercise and healthy foods. I was moved by the smiling faces and laughing eyes of the children who sat cross-legged on the floor.
McGruff and I made the children laugh while giving anticrime and good health messages. During breaks we discussed the plight of these children. I asked one of the staff members what makes a child homeless. Typically, the child might live in a car or in the woods. The youngster might reside in a temporary shelter. Common to all was the lack of a permanent address.
The report on homeless conditions in Pasco County estimated 4,074 homeless individuals (2,649 adults and 1,425 children) in the county on any given day in 2008. This estimate does not include the 1,510 individuals and children who are doubled up, nor did it take into account the 250 men and women incarcerated who indicated they do not have a home to go to after their release date.
McGruff and I spoke with other staff members to understand more about these children and their living conditions. We both became teary-eyed while shaking our heads that these children could be deprived of a place to live. The thought of a small child starting his day with living quarters in a car or the woods is distressing and unconscionable.
As I looked at those youngsters in each rotation, I identified with my own brood or those of my colleagues. After all, they are just kids who want to laugh, play and have a good time.
Unfortunately, they are offspring at risk in a community that has limited resources to address their plight. One must appreciate and support the efforts of religious organizations such as Community United Methodist Church in Holiday to address the children's need for clothes, food and shelter.
My initial concern of difficulty performing antics and helping the children to laugh proved unfounded, but my smiling face concealed a heavy heart. My big red bow tie, porkpie hat and clown nose obscured an inner sadness. What to do for these children remained a persistent thought while cavorting and giving health messages to Pasco's poorest.
I now preserve a vision of these laughing kids swirling around McGruff and responding to my questions as to how to stay healthy. I saw in their eyes what I see in every child's eyes: love, innocence and hope.
As a community we must ask, what can we do? These needy children warrant the life all children deserve, nurturing parents, a caring community and a place to call home. Perhaps, a determined commitment to end Pasco County homelessness; that's what Community United Methodist Church's Pastor Dan Campbell envisions and is working to achieve.
Florida's prominent child advocate Jack Levine used to send out postcards with a simple message: "Thou art my child, I love thee best; but could not love thee half as much, loved I not all the rest."
Dr. Marc J. Yacht of Hudson is retired director of the Pasco County Health Department.