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Romano: Small things make a big difference for kids who have no one

When it comes to solving society's problems, we are a nation of big thinkers.

We like to talk loudly and plan extravagantly. We show up with grand ideas, and we walk away with bold proclamations.

And most of the time, we forget that real change begins with small gestures.

This brings us to a sliver of a room known as Beth's Corner. A windowless nook stocked with baby diapers and wipes. With clothes and shoes. With hope and second chances.

Beth's Corner, which officially opened Wednesday, is a safety net for young adults who have aged out of Florida's foster care system but are struggling on their own.

The description sounds generic. The reality is anything but.

"These kids have so many barriers in their lives that keep them from finding employment," said Kathy Mize Plummer, executive director of Ready For Life, where Beth's Corner is housed. "Most of them were never taught how to drive and don't have licenses. They can't afford a monthly bus pass.

"They're afraid to go on job interviews because they don't have anything appropriate to wear, and there are no parents around to help them out. This closet is going to help knock down some of those barriers."

It is a small solution to a much larger problem. A way of combating poverty, unemployment, hunger and crime by offering essentials many of us take for granted.

"There is this whole layer of society that most people just aren't aware of," said Bob Dillinger, Pinellas-Pasco public defender. "When I speak of 7,000 hungry children, people say, 'What? In Pinellas County?' They have no idea about these kids who go the entire weekend without food until they get back to school for breakfast on Monday.

"We've got kids aging out of foster care who can't get a job because they don't have decent clothes. … We can help them break the cycle of poverty. Now, if we give them all these chances and they still mess up, well then, they've messed up. But they need to at least have that chance to have a productive life."

Beth's Corner, which was funded by a donation from the office of Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, is the latest expansion in the Beth Dillinger Foundation. Dillinger and his wife, Kay, along with help from former Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats' wife, Cat, started the foundation after their daughter Beth passed away nearly nine years ago.

It began with Beth's Closet in 2007, a boutique of free clothes and accessories offered to the at-risk population served by the PACE Center for Girls. The foundation then began offering college and vocational scholarships and is hopeful of providing as many as 200 this year.

From there, they created Hope Chests at the Pinellas and Pasco Public Defenders' Offices to provide clothes for foster children. The Nourish to Flourish program provided food for 750 children to take home from school to ensure they were being fed on weekends.

Clothes. Food. Toiletries. Simple items that change outcomes.

"What makes me feel good is there is no sense of entitlement. The kids are so appreciative," Dillinger said. "They walk in the closet, they have no idea what to expect, and their eyes just get so big. I hear them say it's like a mall for foster kids. 'You mean these are new clothes, and I can keep them?' And we say, 'Yes, keep them. They're yours.'

"A lot of these kids have been abandoned or abused by their parents, and they think no one cares about them. Getting them to understand someone cares is a huge step."