Local groups strive to help foster kids

Cristy Orpurt, of Clermont, is senior director of student development with Forward Paths Foundation. She has been with the organization for three years and said she loves working with children.

Pat Geistler loves working with children. “I have been working with foster children for about 15 years,” Geistler, of the Village of Linden, said. “We develop relationships with the children that we work with and as I get older, you can do things with them we took for granted with our children, like baking cookies because most might not have done that before.” Geistler worked with children at two key local organizations, starting at Florida Guardian ad Litem for a little more than a decade before moving on to volunteer at Forward Paths Foundation. Her love for helping children is why she joined Florida Guardian ad Litem, and later Forward Paths.

In the wake of this month’s Florida Foster Family Appreciation Week, nonprofits such as Guardian ad Litem, Forward Paths and Kids Central Inc. share a common goal — helping improve the lives of children, whether fosters or at-risk youth.

“It could potentially drive more people to become foster parents and help more children in need,” Geistler added. “It will also help to educate more people about why fostering is so important and potentially help some strive harder to better their situations so their children, who may have been placed in emergency foster care, can come home.”

Sylvana Alcidor, of Leesburg, is one of the young women whose lives have been improved by one of these organizations.

“Without the help of Forward Paths and the ladies who work there, I don’t think I would have gotten as far as I have,” she said. “I mean I probably could have, but it would have been extremely difficult as they help me to learn things about being on your own.”

Alcidor came to Forward Paths in January 2019, when the group took her in and helped her with housing. It also helped her find a job and with schooling.

“They helped me learn how to balance my schedule between work and school, helped me with budgeting and getting a savings account and they help me with tutoring if I need extra help with class.”

Without the help of organizations like these helping the children with better lives, Alcidor said she wouldn’t have been able to turn her life around as quickly as she has.

Each organization helps children at different stages. Florida Guardian ad Litem assists young children and teens with the court system. Kids Central help children find forever homes through adoption or temporary homes through foster care. Forward Paths helps those who have aged out of foster care.

All three want to help youths have better lives.

“As I get older, I have found I like working with Forward Paths,” Geistler said. “As a Guardian it was going to court and running around helping the children in need. At Forward Paths, I’m in basically one location instead of running the road, and to me, I can form better relationships with the children because of being able to be one-on-one.”

As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared Feb. 8-12 Florida Foster Family Appreciation Week, he highlighted the scope of his state’s foster situation.

“In Florida, there are approximately 8,318 licensed foster families and approximately 10,548 children living with foster families at a time,” he said in a news release. “Foster families provide a unique opportunity to directly impact children’s lives by providing care for children until they can be reunified with their families or find a forever family.”

First lady Casey DeSantis also encourages Floridians to recognize the impact foster families and organizations have on the community. She also contributes by doing virtual presentations with Kids Central to help educate those looking to become foster parents or those who just want to learn more.

“We encourage Floridians to open their hearts and homes to children in the state who are in need of a quality foster family,” she said in a news release.

Denise Burry, executive director of Forward Paths, started the foundation after learning about the need in the area.

“I currently have eight children, two of which I fostered and then adopted,” she said. “We want to help them to improve their lives while also helping them find a forever family. While Forward Paths usually helps those who are homeless or those who have aged out of foster care, because they are between the ages of 18 and 24, we still form a bond with them and kind of become their forever family with the care we provide.”

Forward Paths helps the young adults with housing, cleaning supplies and food, even with paying bills, all while sending them to school.

Cristy Orpurt, senior director of student development at Forward Paths, works directly with the kids.

“I have been working with nonprofits since I was about 18,” the Clermont resident said. “I have been working here for about 3 years and I love working with the kids. It’s wonderful the governor is recognizing foster kids and their families, because there is such a huge need.”

Jeff Cohen, a four-year volunteer with Florida Guardian ad Litem, said he volunteers with the organization because helping children is so satisfying.

“Children don’t ask to be put in these situations,” the Village of Collier resident said. “The normal foster system only usually keeps them until they turn 18, unless they apply and are accepted for extended foster care which gives them a few more years. Extended foster care also helps them with a chance to learn things they haven’t learned in the normal program like saving money, getting jobs and being on their own.”

The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program trains and matches volunteer guardians, like Cohen, to promote and protect the best interests of children involved in court proceedings and advocate for them.

“With the state recognizing foster families, we hope it encourages more people to foster and eventually adopt,” he added. “Not for the recognition or the money that may or may not come with the child, but for the love of being able to help a child in need. Hopefully, they will form a bond and become a forever family.”

Kids Central also is thrilled about the recognition by state officials.

“We work with about 500 foster families in the tri-county area,” said Jessica Gilbert, director of community affairs for Kids Central Inc. “Our centers, located in Wildwood, Ocala and Leesburg, were created to engage families in services that promote family well being, safety, and health. We provide resources to strengthen families and build strong neighborhoods and wouldn’t be able to help as many as we do without the help of our volunteers.”

The nonprofit is a community-based lead agency for five counties including Lake, Sumter and Marion. They help to create brighter futures for children and families by promoting the welfare of expectant mothers, babies, children, families and young adults through prevention services, in-home care, foster care and adoption.

Jerry Byers has been volunteering with the nonprofit for a little more than six years with his wife, Barb.

He is also thankful state officials are recognizing the work foster families and organizations do for the children.

“One reason is there is a great need for more people willing to foster as some children have no place to go,” the Village of Gilchrist resident said. “There’s not a lot of people in the area willing to give them a home and care for them so it has created a big need. Over the years we’ve known many people who have fostered children and it’s been an enriching experience.”

The Evening Rotary Club of The Villages and the Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake also have improved the lives of children and the organizations by donating much-needed supplies and money.

“Knowing we are able to help the community with their needs and helping foster children gives the club a feeling of pride and accomplishment,” said Village of Calumet Grove resident Cleve Tinsley, a member of the Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake. “Foster care is wonderful because of the bond you form with the child.”

Evening Rotary Club president Gay Ratcliff-Seamens, of the Village of Belle Aire, said the club is glad to help.

“We always look for ways to help the community and bringing donations to the organizations that help with the next generation is a great thing,” she said. “They are the next leaders in the community.”

For more information about how to become a foster parent, visit MyFloridaMyFamily.com.

Staff Writer Andrea Davis can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5374, or andrea.davis@thevillagesmedia.com.