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Making a difference

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Volunteers for Speaking Up For Children offer support by raising money and providing the "basic extras' to help meet the needs of neglected and abandoned children.

For days, they prowl the aisles of Target hunting for back-to-school bargains. They strip the shelves, filling cart after cart with wide-ruled paper, Winnie the Pooh book bags and packets of fat yellow pencils.

For Brenda Gowan and Jody Mitchell, finding the coolest supplies at the cheapest prices is a passion.

The two women aren't buying for their own children, although they scrutinize each item as if they were.

Gowan and Mitchell are volunteers with Speaking Up For Children, a non-profit organization that raises funds to meet the needs of abused, neglected and abandoned children. The agency supports the Guardian Ad Litem program in the 6th Judicial Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties. Department of Children and Families fund the basic needs of these children, but Speaking Up For Children provides the extras.

Sometimes it's braces or orthodontic work not covered by Medicaid. Or it may be a week at camp, dance lessons for a budding ballerina or a pair of Air Jordans for a kid good enough to make his school's basketball team. Anything that contributes to building the self-esteem of an emotionally bruised child.

"These are kids who are not living a normal childhood," said Sean Cadigan, Guardian Ad Litem program director. "These extras are just one small part of what these kids need, but anything that helps reduce the trauma they are going through makes a difference."

It also sends the message that someone is acknowledging their importance, Cadigan added, which is a real ego booster.

This month, like the past four Augusts, self-esteem comes in the form of a bulging backpack. Guardian ad litems will deliver about 200 bags to the children this week.

"We're using donated money so we make sure we go as far as we can with it," Mrs. Gowan said.

That translates to a whole lot of shopping, begging and pleading.

Nearly all of the shopping for pens, paper products and elementary students is done at the New Port Richey Target store, where manager Don McGinnis gives them up to a 20 percent discount.

For older students, Gowan and Mitchell head to the Ellenton outlet mall to purchase top-of-the-line book bags for half the retail price.

Star Wars, A Bug's Life, Barbie and Lisa Frank backpacks are big this year, the women say. They know. Not because they have children that age, because they ask. Any parent accompanied by children who may be in the same aisle is fair game.

"Excuse me, how old are your children?" Mrs. Mitchell asks a mother, two young daughters in tow. "Would she like a backpack like this, or is it too old for her?"

The point, Mrs. Gowan said, is to personalize each bag.

"We don't want them to be generic. If we have a request from a guardian ad litem for a Barbie book bag, we find one," she said. "Our goal is that these kids be able to walk into school on the first day looking like every other kid."

Speaking Up For Children was established in 1986 and has grown from seven to 13 volunteer board members who are responsible for lining up guardian ad litem requests for the children and fundraising.

Besides individual and corporate donations, Speaking Up For Children takes in money raised from its annual golf tournament in November and the Hurricane's Run for the Children in Pass-a-Grille Beach sponsored by the Hurricane Restaurant in October.

Last year, the group doled out about $16,000 for the special needs of children represented by the guardian program, said Mike Gowan, Brenda's wife and president of Speaking Up For Children. Nearly half of the money was used for clothes, books, bags and extracurricular activities, but more than $5,000 went toward counseling.

Even though the state usually pays for counseling, it often is slow in coming.

"If you have a teen in need of counseling and you have to wait for four months for the money to come in to pay for it, they may have taken off by then," Mike Gowan said. "We can't afford to wait."

The only Speaking Up For Children-sponsored event that does not meet the direct needs of kids is the Michael D. Lossee Guardian Ad Litem of the Year ceremony. The award is a way to show support to ad litems who volunteer countless hours to children in need. It also is one of the highlights of the Guardian Ad Litem program.

"Being an ad litem can be a thankless job, with a high burn-out level because of the emotional nature of child abuse," said Guardian Ad Litem program director Cadigan. "(Speaking Up For Children) really makes them feel special by saying "Thank you for a job well done."'

"Our community's future is made brighter, one child at a time," Cadigan said. "I think that is what Speaking Up For Children is doing every day."