Nun realizes her dream of a community for foster children

Published Aug. 30, 2012

TAMPA — She stood inside the metal gate Wednesday, surveying the clusters of two-story townhomes, the overgrown grass and dirty pool.

There was the playground, where the foster kids will find friends. There were the porches of their new, permanent homes. There was the clubhouse, where surrogate grandparents will help with math homework.

"I'm so grateful," said Sister Claire LeBoeuf, 69. "I have been praying for this for so long."

Five years ago, the nun announced her plan: build a multigenerational community for foster children, where people who are willing to adopt kids over age 8 can rent homes at a reduced rate, and seniors who don't have family nearby can move into their own subsidized homes to help with babysitting, cooking and playing ball.

"I want to provide safe, stable families for kids who have given up hope of ever finding one," Sister LeBoeuf said. "Most families who adopt don't get any support. Here, they will have plenty of help so they don't fall apart."

She called her community New Life Village and hoped to build at least 10 big houses on the 72 empty acres behind her mobile home in Thonotosassa. But leveling the property and laying water and power lines would have cost more than $2 million — on top of construction.

Still, the nun pursued her plans, commissioning architectural renderings, printing color pamphlets, contacting more than 700 potential donors.

Her nonprofit accumulated about $20,000. She figured she needed $50 million.

Then, last fall, someone emailed her about a development of townhouses that had been foreclosed on. A Miami builder had abandoned the project, leaving sinks in living rooms and tiles piled on floors. The 12-acre property is off 50th Street, backing Hillsborough Bay, just over a mile from the Selmon Expressway, in an industrial neighborhood pocked with warehouses.

It wasn't the bucolic setting she had hoped for. But it was available and a lot more affordable, and the homes were almost ready.

Two weeks ago, after an anonymous donor contributed $500,000 and a bank offered her a 1 percent loan, the nun signed papers to purchase 30 townhouses — plus a playground, pool and 3,000-square-foot clubhouse.

Now that she has the gate code, now that she has keys and a mortgage, now that her dream is a dusty reality, "I feel numb," she said. "It doesn't seem like it's really ours."

• • •

She grew up on a farm in New Hampshire. Her childhood was idyllic, she said, until she was 13. Her mother died, her older brother moved away, and her dad married a woman who seldom spoke to her.

"I know how awful it is not to feel like you belong," she said. "Everyone should have a place they know they're wanted."

That's why, at 17, she joined a convent of the Sisters of the Holy Cross.

For more than 50 years, she has served children: teaching and counseling, helping mothers struggling to regain custody of their kids, supervising a foster care center called Everyday Blessings where 29 children live in dormitories with seven counselors.

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Older kids, teenagers and large sibling groups are the hardest to place. To take them in, she knows, adoptive parents will need help.

"It takes a village," she said. "That's what we're building."

• • •

By 10 a.m. Wednesday, an army of volunteers had amassed in front of the two-story townhomes bearing hedge clippers, mops and bottles of bleach. While Sister LeBoeuf tallied what each unit would need — everything from washing machines to air-conditioning units — people started edging the knee-high lawns, sweeping the dusty floors and washing mold off the walls. Two of the units, which were models, are furnished.

"Those should be ready for folks right away," the nun said. A new program director is scheduled to move in next week. "And a dozen other homes, we hope, will be ready for families by October."

Parents who adopt foster children get free health care for the kids, plus college tuition. They also get a few hundred dollars a month to help with expenses. And at New Life Village, they will get a 40 percent reduction on their rent, paying around $600 a month for the 1,400-square-foot, 2-bedroom units and $800 for the three-bedroom plans. Seniors who help in the community will receive the same discount.

Sister LeBoeuf has talked to people at adoption agencies, and to six seniors who are interested in moving there. By Christmas, she said, the village will be vibrant.

"Pool parties, potlucks, kids singing carols," she said. "I even want to build a ballfield on that vacant lot."

She envisions a library in the clubhouse, maybe a piano or an organ. Eventually, there should be a chapel, she said. "Of course, it all depends on money, on finding donors who can see what a difference a place like this could make."

As the nun finished touring the townhomes, a thin man in a USF T-shirt ran up to hug her. "You did it!" he said. "How can I help?"

Matthew Dick, 22, was sent to foster care with his big brother when he was 3. "All through elementary school, we bounced from place to place," he said.

He was 11 when Sister LeBoeuf helped find a family for him and his brother — a couple who had already raised three children.

"You gave me so much," said Dick, who studied cello at the University of South Florida. "I'm here to give back."

He loves the concept of the village, wishes there had been a place like that for him and his brother.

"Once you get it all up and running," he asked the nun, "can I come teach the kids music?"