TAMPA — Claire LeBoeuf has devoted most of her life to helping hurting kids have a happy and more promising future.
Her commitment to that growing segment of the population stems from the trauma she experienced as a young teen following the sudden death of her mother. She was sent to live with her godmother and a year later moved into a home her father shared with his new wife. But in neither environment did she feel a sense of belonging or of truly being loved.
Following her high school graduation, she joined the congregation of Sisters of Holy Cross, a family of strongly knit nuns called upon to do God's work in the lives of others.
LeBoeuf became a voice for the voiceless — children who languish in the foster care system through no fault of their own. In 1982, she created New Life Dwelling Place in Thonotosassa, where mothers of children in state custody could live together with the intention of forming strong bonding relationships. If that wasn't achieved, moms could give up their parental rights without guilt to allow their children to be adopted.
At that same site in 1997, she also founded Everyday Blessings, a group home for foster children with a focus on keeping siblings together and the hope of having them adopted collectively.
Although New Life Dwelling Place is no longer in operation due to funding issues, Everyday Blessings continues to carry out its mission as it prepares for a move to Lithia.
Meanwhile, LeBoeuf has continued to make a positive difference in the lives of foster kids throughout Tampa Bay who've been removed from their parental homes due to abuse, neglect, and in some cases, abandonment.
In 2012 she established New Life Village, a 12-acre complex of low-cost townhouses in the Palm River area. It opened the following year to adopted children being raised by blood relatives, adoptive families, foster families wanting to adopt and in certain cases, reunification of biological families. Adding to the mix are senior citizens who serve as surrogate grandparents, tutors and in other volunteer roles.
New Life Village is currently home to 21 families and 10 seniors. It is the only facility of its kind in Florida.
According to Executive Director Mariah Hayden, New Life Village helps address three crucial issues: the overabundance of kids in foster care, the affordable housing dilemma, and the opioid crisis, which has drastically impacted the lives of thousands of parents and their children throughout the region.
March 2019 statistics show 2,510 children in Hillsborough County alone were in the foster care system, the largest number of any county in the state.
"Permanency for these kids has always been my dream and that's what we're establishing at New Life Village," said the 76-year-old LeBoeuf. "And I'm really happy to see seniors support our children. I'd just like to have more of them."
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New Life Village has recently launched a $2.5 million capital campaign, in tandem with a celebration of "Sister Claire" LeBoeuf's dedication over the past 40 years to finding forever families and homes for foster kids in the Tampa Bay area.
The money raised — $1 million of which already has been equally committed by an anonymous donor and the charitable-based Saint Francis Foundation, an organization whose board LeBoeuf sits on — will help fund the construction of two new 9,772 square-foot buildings on site, each with enough bedrooms to house 12 families. The complexes also are meant to free up some space among the campus's existing housing units to accommodate additional seniors with below market cost dwellings of their own.
Editor's note: Two new buildings on the New Life Village site will each be able to accommodate 12 families. The original version of this story was incorrect on this point.