PALMETTO -- Two couples will soon cook dinners for the first time in the great rooms of a pair of 3,600-square-foot houses built by the faith-based Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida for Florida Baptist Children's Homes.
Officials with the groups have decided that with the homes set to be completed by the end of February along Ellenton-Gillette Road, it's time to seek two couples who wish to be foster parents and immediately occupy the homes with up to six foster children per home.
"These two homes don't have parents yet," Melissa Weber, a family support counselor for Florida Baptist Children's Homes, said Thursday. "It will be a Christian couple. We are asking they have one or less children of their own living with them. That way there is plenty of space for a large sibling group."
The homes have six bedrooms and bathrooms in each bedroom, Some of the bedrooms are designed for two children with one master bedroom for the couple and a guest bedroom that could be used for the couple's biological child.
The couples will live rent-free and receive roughly $450 a month per child from the state for food, clothing, school supplies and other necessities, Weber said.
"These are children that are coming from Manatee, DeSoto and Sarasota counties through the Safe Children Coalition," Weber added. "They
have been removed from their families by the state."
The couples have to be at least 21 and willing to care for a large family and willing to parent children from newborn to age 18, Weber added.
A case manager will be assigned to the children and will visit the homes every 21 days.
"They won't be paid employees," Weber said of the couples. "But what they will get is the incredible opportunity to care for children in our own community who are abused and neglected at a time when their lives need unconditional love."
Couples can contact Weber for an application at 941-357-7970 or visit her office at West Bradenton Baptist Church, 1305 43rd St. W., Bradenton.
A dream come true
The news that officials have reached the point where they are now ready to put couples in the first of what could be a half dozen or more foster family homes on the 7.3-acre tract purchased by Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida in Palmetto is exciting to Ed and Joanne Dick, directors on the Guardian Angels' board.
The Dicks were among a handful of "Guardian Angels" who seized the idea a few years ago of an orphanage in Manatee County for abandoned or abused local children.
They soon realized building an orphanage wasn't the most cost-effective way to go and partnered with Florida Baptist Children's Homes, which has been providing foster homes since about 1902.
Florida Baptist Children's Homes will own and run the homes while the nonprofit Guardian Angels will be their funding arm.
"I'm extremely excited because we started off not knowing if this thing would ever work and here it is a reality," Dick said Thursday.
Dick and others say the two homes, which were built for roughly $232,000 each but would cost nearly $400,000 in a "for-profit" situation, are historic because they represent a new concept in foster homes by Florida Baptist Children's Homes, specifically homes with a "forever family" feeling.
That feeling is achieved with permanent parents, lots of family space and room for brothers and sisters to live together, said Floyd Price, also a director on the Guardian Angels board along with his wife, Bobbie, who is board president.
"I used to say that foster children found themselves in limbo between a painful past and an absolutely uncertain future," Floyd Price said. "We hope that is over for the children who live here. This will be their home. And, what is also terrific, we can take sibling groups. One of our goals is to make splitting of sibling groups a relic of the past."
Walking through the front door of the new homes seems to reinforce the family feeling, with a huge great room that includes kitchen, dining room and living room all in one. In fact, the kitchen sink is built into a granite island near the middle of the room.
"The great room creates an atmosphere of family," said Britt Williams of Bruce Williams Homes, the project's general contractor. "That's what we wanted. We wanted it to be the place where someone cooking is in the same room with someone watching TV or doing homework."
Dire need for foster homes
According to the Safe Children Coalition, which rescues local children taken out of crisis situations, in December 2012 there were 33 new children entering foster care in Manatee County, bringing the total to 307 currently in licensed foster care.
To handle those 307 kids, there were 128 licensed foster homes, 13 of which were licensed through Florida Baptist Children's Homes.
Of the 33 children who entered the foster care system in December, 22 were younger than age 6 and 15 were younger than 3, according to Safe Children Coalition management reports.
Of those 33, there were six sibling groups and only three were able to stay together, records show.
Guardian Angels, which has no paid employees, has not waited for the new homes to be completed before taking care of the children, Dick said.
"We currently have 14 homes in Manatee and Sarasota serving 24 children," Dick said. "Guardian Angels is also hosting five classes for prospective parents and there are five families currently enrolled."
A story unto itself concerns how money just flowed into Guardian Angels by word of mouth since 2005, Floyd Price said.
"Our motto has become, 'We stay out of the way and let Him do it," Price said. "Whatever we have needed, the Lord has provided."
For example, Don and Marilyn Bouwer went to lunch with Ed and Joanne Dick immediately after the idea to do the project hatched in 2005 and stunned the Dicks by handing them a check for $100,000.
The Bouwers have followed that donation with several donations that were significantly higher, Dick said. Many others have also stepped forward, Dick added.
The Guardian Angels hope to rename the first foster home campus street "Bouwer Court" in honor of the Bouwers.
Due to the donations, Guardian Angels was able to purchase the 7.3 acres -- for $217,000 -- from Bill and Dottie Garland and, by November 2011, had $1.4 million in the bank, which has gone into the construction of the two homes plus Weber's salary and roads and other needs, Floyd Price said.
"We now still have well over $1 million in the bank and our office space is being provided by West Bradenton Baptist Church," Dick said. "The general contractor and many of the subcontractors are all doing it for way below their regular cost. That is how we have done so well."