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Dungy leads campaign to find homes for 23,000 Florida foster children

Tony Dungy and his All Pro Dad organization is partnering with the Florida Department of Children and Families to recruit more adoptive parents and foster families in Florida. Dungy, former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, made the announcement Wednesday.
Published Nov. 18, 2016

On a Thursday afternoon in 2007, defending Super Bowl champs the Indianapolis Colts were preparing to face the New England Patriots to represent their conference in the next Super Bowl.

Coach Tony Dungy had to leave a few minutes early: A family services agency in Indianapolis had asked him to film a public service announcement to recruit foster families.

That Sunday, his Colts fell to the Patriots.

Fast forward to the end of 2008. Dungy was preparing for a news conference to announce his retirement from coaching. His secretary insisted that first, Dungy read a letter from the parents of a 12-year-old boy they adopted after seeing Dungy's public service announcement.

"He had never slept on sheets, had shoes that fit, tasted a milkshake or played a game of catch," they wrote. "Now, he attends a good school and plays football; his dad is the coach. Because of your PSA, we became a family."

Dungy still tears up whenever he reads that letter. He understands what it meant for those parents to find their son. He and his wife Lauren began fostering children over 30 years ago, when he was a young defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Dungys now have 10 children, seven of whom are adopted.

"Coach Dungy doesn't just talk the talk; he walks the walk," said Mike Carroll, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families.

Dungy appeared Wednesday to announce a new statewide campaign aimed at getting children into permanent homes. With him were Carroll, former state House Speaker Will Weatherford, and Kurt Kelly, head of the Florida Coalition for Children.

Florida has led the nation in adoption success rates, about 3,200 a year, for the last five or six years. Still, the need remains great: About 23,000 Florida kids are in foster care, enough to fill one-third of Raymond James Stadium.

"This is about everyday mom and dads who are willing to take these kids into their homes," Carroll said.

Often, child advocates say, the lack of suitable homes means children are sent into residential group care or to any bed available when they should be matched instead with a family that suits their individual needs.

Weatherford hopes thousands of children will be taken out of foster care through the new campaign.

"If we can leverage the church, community and citizens to feel compelled through the words of Coach Dungy and others to do something about this, to engage and save someone's life, I think it will be an awe-inspiring experience," he said.

One goal of the new partnership is to help children in need by strengthening families in the community.

"People like you and me have to open their hearts, homes and families to accept somebody else and love them like your own," Carroll said. "If you're going to wait for the government to fix this issue, it may never get fixed."

Efforts to recruit more foster families will include radio and television announcements, advertising through social media, op-ed pieces by Dungy and Carroll, Father and Kids' football stadium experiences, and All Pro Dads day, which puts on breakfast and activities with fathers and mentors across Florida schools.

All Pro Dad, launched in 1997 and featuring more than 60 NFL players and coaches, asks men to give one minute a day, one hour a month, and one day a year to become better fathers.

Carroll's own fostered teenage son used to hide cookies and candy under his pillow. His foster home had locked their cupboards and refrigerators.

"You see all the time that kid coming out of his shell," he said. "It's a special feeling as a parent."

Dungy makes a point of seeking foster parents among people who think they might be unqualified or too busy.

"When my wife brought it up to me, my first response was, 'This is impossible,'" he said. "But you just have to investigate it."

"As a coach, I had 53 kids already!" he added with a laugh. "If you want to do it, God will supply the means for you."

Contact Libby Baldwin at lbaldwin@tampabay,com. Follow her at @LibBaldwin

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