Rise Above: We Try to Say Yes

Rise Above is an organization that tries to make up for what it is most foster children have never had. Children, you see, should be protected and cherished, and most are. But when a child enters the foster care system, it’s usually because of neglect or abuse. And that’s as much an abuse of trust as much as of body and soul. It’s damaging to the psyche.

This is where Rise Above comes in, granting kids wishes beyond their needs. It’s one way of telling these children what they so need to hear: “We love you enough to spoil you a little. We think you’re worth it.”

And it’s why Rise Above tries never to say no to a foster child who fills out a request form for a prom dress, a hockey stick, ballet classes, or a family vacation to Disneyland. These children have heard the word “no” way too many times. Rise Above is about saying, “Yes!”

Rise Above Logo


It’s a mission Kars4Kids can get behind. We believe in giving children what they need to get ahead. We believe in making them feel special. That’s why we were pleased to help Rise Above in a small way with a $500 small grant.

Beyond the grant, we thought to help spread word of the work Rise Above is doing. That’s why we spoke to Co-founder & Executive Director of the Rise Above Foundation, Sarah Baldiga. We think you’ll enjoy hearing about this organization that’s helping kids rise above neglect and abuse to grow up to be the best they can be.

Just like any other kids.

Kars4Kids: You co-founded Rise Above in 2009 and have created “2000 smiles.” What made you embark on this project?

Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above began in 2009 to fill the need of providing foster youth with extracurricular activities and experiences that most of their peers are able to participate in. As social workers for the Massachusetts Department of Children & Families, Rise Above’s founders witnessed first-hand the powerful effect providing everyday childhood experiences could have on foster children’s physical, mental and social health and the great need that existed to give more children these opportunities.


Kars4Kids: Watching the clip we found on the Rise Above’s website, we discovered there are 9,000 children in foster care in Massachusetts. How does this compare to other states?

Sarah Baldiga: There are about 500,000 children in foster care across the U.S.  and 9,000 here in Massachusetts alone. HERE is a link to KIDS COUNT data, which shows the full breakdown of children in foster care by state.

Kars4Kids: Your website explains how little money foster parents receive to care for their foster children, around $23 a day. But that doesn’t explain why foster parents aren’t able to provide their foster children with guitar lessons, laptops, and prom dresses, for instance. Are most foster parents in it for the money?

Sarah Baldiga: Foster parents receive about $700 per month, which really isn’t too much when you think about that covering a youth’s food, housing and other basic needs. There is very little left over for extracurricular activities. Sports fees and equipment, dance classes and recital costumes, musical instruments and prom can costs thousands per youth each year.

In our experience, foster parents are loving adults who are truly committed to supporting youth who are experiencing foster care through the daunting challenges they are facing in their young lives. In Massachusetts and across the country, we are in desperate need of more caring adults who want to make an immeasurable difference in the life of a child by becoming a foster parent!

F. Dec

Kars4Kids: What was the most moving response ever received by Rise Above from a foster child?

Sarah Baldiga: We’ve received so many beautiful thank you notes from youth , foster parents and social workers. One of our favorites was from 17-year old Salena. She wrote us:

“Dear Rise Above: Thank you soo much for giving me money to buy my prom dress. I had one of the nicest dresses at prom. I stood out and this time it was in a good way, which I was worried about because I thought I would get an old borrowed dress, but that was not the case this time thank to you. Prom night was one of the best nights of my life. I had fund and wasn’t worried about people looking at me and judging me because I felt beautiful, just like every girl should, even girls in foster care. I can’t thank you enough or explain how happy you made me because it can’t be explained in words. Thank you!”

Desirae DC trip

Kars4Kids: The Rise Above website mentions that the organization, in addition to children, assists college students and young adults. What are the upper and lower limits, age-wise, of Rise Above recipients?Anya horseback riding_for FB

Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above serves any child in the Massachusetts foster care system, from age 1 to age 23.

Kars4Kids: Under  “Examples of what we fund” we noted that family vacations are among the items that have been requested and granted by Rise Above. Is this a vacation for the foster child with the foster family? That is probably a much-needed item!

Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above has helped lots of kids be able to go on vacation with their foster parents and siblings. We love helping kids to travel near and far to see new sights, and we’ve helped lots of kids with museum passes and Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and other theme park passes.

Kars4Kids: It was upsetting to read that fewer than 3% of foster youth go to college. It’s so nice that Rise Above  tries to encourage these students with care packages of college essentials. How many care packages do you give out in an average year?

Sarah Baldiga: Nationally, less than 3% of foster youth go to college and those who do- approximately 600 in Massachusetts- face daunting challenges. Without families, they miss out on the emotional and financial support that their peers rely on. Rise Above’s college care package project applauds these youth’s accomplishments will a box filled with study snacks, school supplies, hygiene items, laundry detergent pods and other dorm essentials. The content of the boxes is donated by Rise Above supporters and generous local businesses.

This year, our goal is send out least 250 college care packages to youth like 21-year old Oumaima:

“This is my fourth year in college… and for the past few years I’ve watched my roommates and friends from college receive care packages from families members during holidays and finals week and I’ve always wanted to receive one myself so thank you so making that happen. The note inside the package put a smile on my face.”

Emma dance

Kars4Kids: We’ve tried to imagine the highs and lows of your job. It must be amazing when you can put a smile on a foster child’s face. But there must be times that Rise Above must say no or times you have encountered a truly tragic circumstance. What was the most difficult or frustrating situation you encountered as the Executive Director of Rise Above?prom kid thank you

Sarah Baldiga: Thankfully, we are almost always able to say “yes!” to an activity request we receive for a child. However, sometimes we can’t afford to fulfill the whole amount being asked for. For example, a child might want to try taking tap and ballet dance classes, but we might only be able to help pay for the tap dance classes. That’s tough! Kids in foster care hear “no” a lot, and so we try very, very hard to say “yes!” every time we can! We’re determined to grow Rise Above so that we never have to say no.


Kars4Kids: What was the most amazing request Rise Above was able to grant?

Sarah Baldiga: One of my favorite requests happened last summer when Rise Above helped a teen, Juliette, participate in a summer music program. Juliette is an exceptionally talented vocalist and she was accepted into the prestigious Boston University Tanglewood Institute. It was an incredible opportunity for her, but the price was over $7,000. The Institute gave her a generous scholarship, Rise Above was able to contribute about $3,0000, and we worked with several agencies to help come up with the balance. It was truly a collaborative effort. Juliette had an amazing experience at the Institute, learning about posture, composition, music theory and diction, and studying under world-renown musician and composers.

Kars4Kids: What’s next for Sarah Baldiga and Rise Above?

Sarah Baldiga: Rise Above’s vision is for all youth in Massachusetts who experience foster care as part of their childhood to have the same opportunities as their peers. Our goal is to continue to grow as quickly as possible and in the next year or two to be serving 1,000 children annually. Our long-term goal is be able to give each of the 9,000 kids in our state who are experiencing foster care the opportunities to participate in whatever extracurricular activities they’d like!

Summer bike2

Seattle ICO: Helping City Kids Access the Great Outdoors

Seattle ICO: Helping City Kids Access the Great Outdoors
The wonderment in these young faces tell the whole story of Seattle ICO. (courtesy)

We (“we” being Kars4Kids) gave out another small grant, this time to Seattle Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO), which began as part of the Seattle Group of the Sierra Club in 1991, and is now among the most lively of ICO programs in the National Sierra Club. Think about it: living in a beautiful place like Seattle, and never getting to see much more than its urban center. That is what Seattle ICO aims to correct because it just shouldn’t be like this—kids should have a chance to see trees and flowers and birds, the wondrousness of mountains and natural streams. It’s important to have a sense of the gift of the great out-of-doors.

Feeding juvenile salmon (courtesy)
Feeding juvenile salmon (courtesy)

That is the important work that Seattle ICO is doing. This organization is taking kids on trips in the wild and teaching them survival skills. ICO provides food, transportation, and trained volunteers to students from select Seattle elementary, middle, and high schools. The students are a multicultural mix of diverse ethnic backgrounds and some of them have special needs, too. ICO helps these students get excited about the world they live in, and of course, there’s a lot of mentoring going on, which is something Kars4Kids can always get behind, mentoring being our main mission.

We spoke to Kirsten Gardner, Chair of Seattle ICO, to find out more about the work of this wonderfully driven all-volunteer organization.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about the work you do with the special needs class at Franklin High School. How does environmental education help children with special needs? What kind of outings do you take with these children?

Kirsten Gardner: Franklin has had a very dedicated teacher in the special education department who really goes out of her way to recruit students for these trips which they may not sign up for otherwise.  Trying new things is often a cause of fear or anxiety for anyone, and this can be compounded when there is a learning disability involved, but the satisfaction and pride is immense. It also gives the students an opportunity to succeed in an environment outside of school, in nature, which is forever the great equalizer.  A student who can’t sit still in class for three minutes might find a healthy outlet for their energy on a hike that others find challenging.

We just had a mountain biking trip for a group from Franklin at the end of January. Most of the kids had never been on a bike before but they all brought great attitudes and a willingness to learn. It was a really successful and fun day.

Seattle ICO, small grant
Ducks! (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: At one area elementary school, you’re serving both local and homeless children. Do you see any difference in how the homeless children relate to the outings you arrange for them? Are they more resourceful? Is there a special focus for these trips that supports these children?

Kirsten Gardner: This is a tough question. As a volunteer leader that sees the students only once every month or so, you are never sure what their home situation is like and how that might be affecting their attitude or behavior on the day of an outing. So we do what we can to ensure success for everyone. We provide a full breakfast at the school when we meet the students in the morning, a healthy lunch and plenty of snacks throughout the day. And we completely outfit the students from head to toe with warm and weather appropriate gear: hiking boots, rain pants, ski gloves—everything they need.  The idea is that if a child shows up hungry and isn’t dressed for the expected weather (which happens frequently and doesn’t denote homelessness or a challenging home environment—not everyone has hiking boots or warm jackets)—they can still come with us and have a great day.

Extra food at the end of the trip is given to the students to take home. And in some cases if we are aware that the need is there, we put food items aside for specific students.

Seattle ICO, Middle Falls
The glory of Middle Falls. (courtesy)

Seattle ICO Trips A Privilege

Kar4Kids: We’re aware that some school children are chosen for ICO trips as a way of giving them an incentive toward better academic performance, behavior, and so forth. Does it work? Do children in Seattle know about ICO and dream about going on these field trips?

Kirsten Gardner: Each school or agency partner has their own way of promoting the trip to the students but yes, the outings are viewed as being pretty fun and teachers report hearing students talk about them for weeks afterwards.  Most of the schools do promote the ICO trips as a privilege that should be earned—particularly for participation in some of the highly desirable overnight camping trips or snow tubing outings.  Sometimes this participation is based on academics and sometimes there is a service element to being allowed to participate. In most cases the agency contact (teacher) who works most closely with that school’s ICO team has the final say in participation and students are occasionally prevented from coming with us due to behaviors or disciplinary action in school.  But it is a fine line because sometimes those are the individuals that need or benefit from this type of experience the most.

Pitching tents at Mt. Saint Helens (courtesy)
Pitching tents at Mt. Saint Helens (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: What are some of the skills children learn on the ICO field trips? How many times is a student from one of the schools you serve, likely to take part in an ICO event?

Kirsten Gardner: Some students go on every single fieldtrip, and start in 3rd grade at a school like Baily Gatzert and then continue on to a Middle School like Washington which has a ICO trips for 6-8th graders. We teach all students about Leave No Trace and how to generally respect the environment and enjoy our time in nature responsibly.  Specific trips teach skills like mountain biking, kayaking or canoeing, tide pooling and basic marine biology, bird-watching and identification, and snow-shoeing. On overnight trips students are taught how to assemble their own tents and must work together in teams to do so. They also help with meal preparation and cleanup on the longer trips.  We try to turn situations where we hear a lot of ‘I can’t’ into opportunities for the students to teach and help each other with a specific task, like putting on snow shoes.

Seattle ICO, hiking
Take a hike isn’t just words when it comes to kids and Seattle ICO (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: One of the schools you serve, Tukwila Elementary School, has a diverse student population with a total of 20 languages other than English. Do most of the children speak English? If not, how do you manage to communicate with the children, especially if you’re working with a multinational group with more than one native tongue?

Most students attending our trips speak some English if they aren’t fully fluent though occasionally we’ll have a new student from a refugee family who is still learning. Oftentimes these students will sign up for the trip with peers—sometimes relatives, who can translate for them.  We play ice breaker and name games at the beginning of each trip and I usually try to play a game in the van while driving where we see how many different languages we can say a certain word in—hello, peace, thank you, etc. It helps us learn more about each other while also celebrating how diverse our student populations are.

Additionally, many of our leaders are bilingual. Off the top of my head I know we have volunteers leaders who speak Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, Vietnamese and Amharic.

Seattle ICO
Lunch break! Nothing like having a bite to eat in the great out of doors. (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Are Seattle ICO trips one-day affairs, or are some of them longer?

Kirsten Gardner: Most are held on Saturdays but each school team does one or sometimes two (if they have the budget for it) overnight trips per year that involve camping or backpacking.

Seattle ICO
Whitewater rafting! (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: What makes you know that you’re having a positive impact on Seattle youth? Can you describe a satisfying moment with one of the children from a Seattle ICO field trip?

A recent Seattle ICO trip to Mt. Saint Helens (courtesy)
A recent Seattle ICO trip to Mt. Saint Helens (courtesy)

Kirsten Gardner: There are a lot of awesome moments on these trips. Just giving kids the opportunity to play outside is immensely satisfying when you know that they don’t regularly have recess or gym class or any opportunity to move and be freely active. But my favorite moment was on the drive home from an overnight trip to Mt. Saint Helen’s three years ago.

We had an awesome weekend—hiked three miles on Saturday and played capture the flag for hours in this great big field surrounded by woods. Then on Sunday we took the students spelunking in the Ape Caves which are a series of lava tubes on the south side of the mountain. We opted for the 5-mile cave that involved scrambling over boulder piles and up a rope-assisted climb up an 8-foot lava flow, all while being in the dark and traveling by the light of our headlamps. It was challenging! And the return hike to the car was about 2 miles so we had a 7-mile day which is a lot for 6th and 7th graders.

On the drive home, one particularly ‘active’ (i.e. disruptive) student who had a reputation for being a troublemaker and talking nonstop in class made himself a sandwich and promptly fell asleep mid-bite. One of the teachers took a photo and sent it to his peers as proof that ICO trips are worth supporting.

A lot of the students on that particular trip were 6th graders and now, as 8th graders, they still talk about that particular trip and their big caving adventure beneath an active volcano.

Seattle ICO, Mt. Saint Helens
Dark as night in a cave at Mt. Saint Helens (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Seattle ICO is serving a wide age range (8-20). What would be a typical field trip for an 8 year-old hiking novice?

Kirsten Gardner: 8 year-olds are typically in 3rd grade and we try to incorporate a lot of play into these outings. Oftentimes the first one of the year is a corn maze hike plus a trip to a farm and pumpkin patch to pick a pumpkin for Halloween (a novelty for a lot of our students.) Hiking trips for 3rd graders might amount to 2-3 miles total with a lot of time being spent in free play at a destination like a lake, river, or open meadow.

Seattle ICO kids learn the sheer joy of playing in the snow (courtesy)
Seattle ICO kids learn the sheer joy of playing in the snow (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: For the higher end of the age range you serve, what would be a typical field trip? How do the older youth end up in Seattle ICO? Is it a continuation of their time with you when they were younger? Or are they scholarship students in local colleges?

Hands on education at a fishery (courtesy)
Hands on education at a fishery (courtesy)

Kirsten Gardner Our trips stop at 12th grade and the older students (19 and 20 year-olds) are often recent arrivals from other countries that don’t have a comparable education system.  Older kids tend to get more excited about the ‘glamorous’ trips like whitewater rafting, horseback riding, cross country skiing, backpacking and mountain biking but these are interspersed with lots of hiking trips. And frequently in order to participate in the big trip at the end of the year students need to have gone on at least 3 others throughout the school year. Many students find ICO in 3rd grade and continue attending outings until at least 8th grade if their school is a partner agency of ours.

Kars4Kids: What do the parents think of Seattle ICO? Do they see them as a nice freebie, or do most of them get why these field trips are so important?

Kirsten Gardner: I’m not sure…some parents write us thank-you notes and others we never meet to get a sense of how they view the trips.  One child’s father owns a popular Nepalese restaurant and extends a discount to all of our volunteers who go in to dine, which is an incredibly kind gesture.

Seattle ICO, CPR
Seattle ICO volunteers learn CPR (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: How many volunteers do you have at present? Tell me about the training they receive. What drives a person to volunteer with Seattle ICO?

Seattle ICO
Baking Brownies in a Dutch oven over a Campfire in the woods (courtesy)

Kirsten Gardner: We currently have 111 active volunteers.  We hold a weekend-long new leader training (NLT) event at the start of each September and spend the weekend teaching games, strategies for working with youth in a variety of scenarios, CARP (Child Abuse Recognition and Prevention), how to plan and lead an outing and protocol for certain incidents that could arise on a trip. Volunteers also must be CPR and First Aid certified (we hold one training session for 25 volunteers once per year) and must be Sierra Club members. Active volunteers are required to attend NLT once every 5 years as a refresher.

Volunteers are then assigned to a team which partners with a specific school and individual teams have their own further training methods—most of which involves pairing up new leaders with veterans to shadow all of the different ‘trip roles’—pulling gear, buying and prepping food, renting vans, planning and being the main logistical lead on an actual trip and cleaning and returning gear.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most of our volunteers have found something worthwhile and fulfilling in the outdoors and have a desire to share this with a population that may not have the same access or privileges to experience the outdoors on a regular basis. To quote a friend of mine, spending time in the mountains really helped me ‘find my voice’ and discover an inner strength and skill set that urban living hadn’t allowed me to see before. Motivation to share this with others, particularly impressionable youth, and to perhaps enable them to have their own similar self-discovery is what first drove me towards the organization.

Seattle ICO, Wallace Falls Trail
One of Five Bridges Crossed on the Wallace Falls Trail (courtesy)


The Bridge: Where Kids From The ‘Burbs Take Center Stage

The Bridge Teen Center Where Kids From The Burbs Take Center Stage
The Bridge Teen Center (courtesy)

The Bridge Teen Center, a center for suburban teens, is the latest recipient of a Kars4Kids small grant.  Now, when Kars4Kids gives out a small grant to a worthy organization, we like to interview someone there for this blog, to spread the word of the good work  being done there. In preparing this interview, however, this writer had no idea she was corresponding with one of the teens served by The Bridge. It was impossible to tell that the very full and considerate responses received had been penned by a teenager.

That makes The Bridge all the more impressive from our standpoint. It would have been the easy way out to hand off the interview to a clerk. Having a teen handle this very adult job, on the other hand, meant giving that teen a learning experience, an important task, and a huge responsibility. Giving the interview to Amber Holup also shows that the staff at The Bridge have developed an extraordinarily high level of trust with the teens they serve. We predict great things for The Bridge, and for Amber Holup, a credit to The Bridge. Kars4Kids is proud to play a small part in helping this so obviously worthy organization that is helping kids like Amber throughout the year.

Ugly Sweater and Trivia Night at The Bridge (courtesy)
Ugly Sweater and Trivia Night at The Bridge (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Founding The Bridge had to have been a huge undertaking for Director Priscilla Steinmetz and her husband Rob, when they got the ball rolling in 2010. How were they suited so uniquely for the task of building a teen center?  Do the Steinmetz’s have children of their own?

Amber Holup: Priscilla first had the idea to start The Bridge Teen Center in 2005. For five years, she and her husband Rob worked hard to raise money, volunteers, and the community’s support before opening their doors to teens in June of 2010. Rob and Priscilla, a married couple with no children, both had careers in the nonprofit sector before conceptualizing and starting The Bridge Teen Center. In addition, Priscilla had worked with youth for over 20 years. Combining each of their nonprofit backgrounds and Priscilla’s youth ministry background, along with the community’s support, The Bridge Teen Center opened a 2,400 square foot teen center that has now grown to be 9,600 square feet that offers over 300 programs each year to students for free.

Culinary Corner, The Bridge
Having fun in a cooking class at The Bridge (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Your mission statement specifically mentions that The Bridge is intended to serve students who live in the suburbs. What are some of the challenges of raising a child in the suburbs? What specific need is The Bridge filling for these children?

Amber Holup: While there is no denying the ongoing need within inner city communities, there is a misconception that nothing bad happens in the suburbs – we call it the “White Picket Fence Syndrome.”  Many view the suburbs as safer, more orderly, and more wholesome environments than their urban counterparts.  However, research shows that those perceptions are unfounded.

A report from the Manhattan Institute indicates that suburban public high school students have sex, drink, smoke, use illegal drugs, and engage in delinquent behavior as often as urban public high school students. Teens in the suburban areas primarily served by The Bridge Teen Center – including suburban Cook County and Will County – face many challenges and risk factors.  The Cook County Department of Public Health reports that 1 in 10 teens have attempted suicide; 33% of students have used marijuana at least once; 29% of students were offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone at school during the last year; 40% of children are overweight or obese, and obesity rates have tripled for children over the past 20 years; and 30% of teens have been bullied at school or online.

Welding at The Bridge
Welding at The Bridge (courtesy)

These statistics are staggering and as a teen myself, I can attest that they are true. When I first came to The Bridge I was a victim of bullying. I know first-hand that The Bridge provides its students with the love, support, and resources to help them overcome the obstacles that they are facing and flourish into the people that they are meant to be.

The free programs and events offered by The Bridge are designed with purpose – helping students to grow mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.  Teens who actively participate in Bridge programs experience decreased social pressures, including bullying; improved grades through our free tutoring; exposure to unique programs that introduce them to potential career paths; improved “life skills” through targeted culinary demonstrations; programs that teach students basic car maintenance and more; and increased exposure to increasingly scarce art programs that include a wide variety of free music lessons and visual arts programs.

On behalf of the 3,800 student that The Bridge Teen Center has served, I can honestly say that the center is changing the lives of suburban teens – for a group of students that afterschool programs typically forget about.

Kars4Kids: You offer programs in each of five “buckets”: Everyday Life, Community Connections, Educational Support, Mind/Body, Expressive Arts. What exactly is a “bucket” in this sense? Do students sign up for specific buckets? How did you come up with this concept?

Amber Holup: Our free, groundbreaking programs can be categorized into five different program areas.

Programs in the Everyday Life bucket include life skills programs, weekend entertainment, afterschool drop-in hours, and signature special events. Programs in the Community Connections bucket include ongoing community service projects for students, parent programs, behind the scenes tours, and programs that introduce students to careers. Programs in the Educational Support bucket include tutoring and homework support, career and job readiness, in-school assemblies and workshops, leadership training, study skills and test prep, and STEM programming.

Our Expressive Arts program bucket provides opportunities for students to dream, explore, and express themselves creatively through a wide range of visual and performing art forms. Mind/Body programs and experiences are designed around the interests of teens that promote active and healthy living through culinary demos (healthy focus), group kick fitness class, de-stress yoga, self-defense workshops, canoeing, and boxing/kickboxing.

A program bucket is simply a way for The Bridge Teen Center to categorize our programs and market the programs to our students. Students sign up for each program separately, however each program bucket has its own icon that is featured next to each respective program in our program magazine. If a student really loves Expressive Arts programs then he/she can look for the paintbrush icon in the program magazine to quickly identify which art programs they would like to sign up for.

Ice skating anyone? (courtesy)
Ice skating anyone? (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: How many children are currently enrolled in The Bridge? Is there a wait list? What is the ratio of staff to children?

Amber Holup: The Bridge Teen Center has served 3,800 students from over 125 different communities in the past five years. As a result of students graduating, The Bridge has 2,137 students currently enrolled. We have outgrown our facility two times thus far and expanded once in 2011 (a year after opening our doors) and another time in December of 2015. Expanding our facility and programming has allowed The Bridge Teen Center to keep up with the growing number of students that we serve. We’ve also had to expand the number of staff and volunteers that we have, to keep an adult to student ratio of 1:15 for student safety.


Kars4Kids:  Your website states: The Bridge is managed by experienced professionals who are supported by well-trained and pre-screened adult volunteers. What sort of professionals work at The Bridge? How many volunteers do you have? Do you train the volunteers yourselves? What does training consist of?

Amber Holup: The Bridge employs 5 full-time and 5 part-time staff members.  The Bridge employs young professionals who can identify with being a modern day teenager, and in supervisory positions, more seasoned professionals are seen. This balance allows The Bridge to successfully serve teens with excellence.

Priscilla Steinmetz utilizes her nonprofit experience and her 20 plus years in youth ministry to serve as the nationally-recognized Executive Director of The Bridge Teen Center. Her expertise in the field has earned her many accolades such as being named an Afterschool Ambassador for Afterschool Alliance. Rob, her husband, has over 15 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and was even a professor teaching “Marketing for Nonprofits” before starting The Bridge and uses his extensive knowledge to serve as Director of Marketing and Development.

Anna, Program Director at The Bridge, holds a Masters of Education in Educational Psychology and uses her knowledge to ensure that the afterschool programs that The Bridge staff plans are reaching students holistically. The Bridge Teen Center’s dynamic staff is part of our recipe for success but we couldn’t do it without our volunteers.

Volunteers are a major part of the free afterschool programs we provide. Each year, we utilize the volunteer services of more than 200 “Program Volunteers” – those who share their passions and skills with students by leading an afterschool program. That does not include more than 80 ongoing “Bridge Volunteers” – those who volunteer weekly or monthly to assist with ongoing support during student hours. Bridge Volunteers’ training consists of pre and post meetings led by Bridge staff at the beginning and end of the program day, as well as an annual volunteer training day where teenage youth development lessons are taught by our staff and external presenters.

BFF's at The Bridge (courtesy)
BFF’s at The Bridge (courtesy)

The Bridge: A Melting Pot

Kars4Kids: Tell me about the mix of children you serve. Are they from similar backgrounds or from various types of homes: blue collar, professional, low-income?

Amber Holup: The Bridge exists to serve students between the ages of 12-18 (7th-12th grades) and also provides monthly programming to help parents navigate through the teenage years.  For the safety of our students, The Bridge adheres to a very strict “teens only” policy.  Students can attend The Bridge the summer before they enter 7th grade, through the summer they graduate high school.  There are no participation restrictions based on residency, school, religious affiliation, or economic background.

Currently, The Bridge Teen Center serves approximately 58% girls and 42% boys.  Approximately 74% of students at The Bridge are Caucasian, 8% Hispanic, 10% African-American, and 8% Multi-Racial/Other.  Although we do not track the income of the families we serve, we estimate that more than 50% of the students we serve come from low- to moderate-income households based on the communities in which our students reside and the schools they attend.

As a student at The Bridge myself, I like to say that The Bridge is a “melting pot” for teens in our community. From upper middle class to those that live below means, The Bridge helps all teens regardless of their background. All teens are trying to discover who they are and all teens face unhealthy temptations and all teens have to discover what they are going to do with their lives; The Bridge is there to help each student (and their parents through monthly parent programs), regardless of their background, through the tough teenage years.

Making gingerbread houses with all the fixings (courtesy)
Making gingerbread houses with all the fixings (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: The acronym you have on your student application form is awesome. Have you ever had to expel a student from The Bridge? How do you deal with infractions?

Amber Holup: Expectations for behavior are made very clear to students at the very beginning. The Code of Conduct is explained to each student as they sign their application, indicating they understand the expectations of behavior and that experiencing The Bridge Teen Center is a privilege. Positive behaviors are reinforced through verbal recognition and modest praise. The environment at The Bridge Teen Center is very positive, safe, and supportive, so the students want to be here. Expectations are always communicated and modeled by staff and volunteers to remind students of what is expected of them. Staff and volunteers call our students “ladies” and “gentlemen” and “students” rather than “kids” because we expect our students to behave with respect.

Students who break their promise to follow the Code of Conduct may lose their privileges at The Bridge Teen Center. The staff helps the students understand the consequences of the behavior and why their behavior is wrong, and then discusses an action plan to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. Some students have had their privileges taken away for various amounts of time, but are invited back if staff feels the student returning is in the best interest of the student him/herself and in the best interest of the safety for all our students at The Bridge Teen Center.

T he Bridge Code of Conduct

B e faithful to attend the program you signed up for or contact The Bridge within 48 hours of the event if you need to cancel.
R emain in the building for the length of the program unless you have communicated with both the Bridge staff and your parent(s).
I nteract and respect others—Bridge staff, volunteers and other students; listen when others talk.
D ecide to be responsible for your attitude by being open and teachable.
G o with the flow, honor The Bridge’s and other people’s space and property. This is an illegal substance and weapon free facility.
E ncourage rather than put down others; use appropriate language.

Kars4Kids: How many students are receiving homework help at The Bridge? What percentage of kids from The Bridge go on to college? Would you say The Bridge has a hand in making that happen?

Amber Holup: Students informally receive homework help from volunteers and staff members daily. We estimate that 30 students a month receive homework help while we know for certain that 10 students a month receive weekly tutoring in a more formal format. This does not include our Educational Support programs that are offered on a weekly basis to our students. Educational Support programs equip students with studying skills, decrease their test anxiety, and teach students how to apply their knowledge from school to real life applications.

Unfortunately, The Bridge Teen Center does not have the means to track the percentage of students from The Bridge that go on to college, however Afterschool Alliance reports that students who attend afterschool programs are more likely to go on to college. We believe that The Bridge does have a hand in making that happen because we offer Educational Support programs that help them persevere through middle school and high school, and students have the opportunity to meet college and trade school representatives when they lead programs at The Bridge, or when students do an offsite program at a local school.

Personally, I have been discovered that I want to major in Nonprofit Business Administration at Olivet Nazarene University, a sponsor of The Bridge, as a result of me attending The Bridge Teen Center.

Chillin' at The Bridge (courtesy)
Chillin’ at The Bridge (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Your anonymous Q&A is a fabulous idea, but it looks like it’s no longer current. Is it difficult to gain the trust of the kids at The Bridge?

Amber Holup: Our anonymous Q&A was utilized when The Bridge first opened and staff and volunteers were gaining the trust of our students. Now that The Bridge is trusted by both adults and teens in the community, parents and students know that they can talk to staff and students whenever they would like, to seek advice. Students know by the actions of Bridge staff and volunteers that they are cared for, loved, and accepted, therefore they don’t feel a need to be anonymous.

The Bridge Teen Center plans on unveiling a new website soon that leaves out the Anonymous Q&A section.

Crafty teens at The Bridge (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: What are the most popular events at The Bridge?

Amber Holup: The most popular events at The Bridge Teen Center are the Friday Night Live events. Each Friday, from 7:30-10:30pm, students spend time socializing with their friends at The Bridge. Karaoke, movies, trivia games, high school and traveling bands entertain students and provide a safe place where students can go and refrain from unhealthy behaviors (i.e. Drinking and smoking).

Flower Arranging (courtesy)
Flower Arranging (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: Is there any sort of graduation ceremony for matriculating out of The Bridge? Is it difficult for kids to move on? Do the staff keep in touch with any of the kids after they “age out” of the program?

Amber Holup: Students can attend The Bridge up until the summer directly after their senior year of high school. Some students are sad when they move on because they have formed such strong relationships with staff, volunteers, and other students, however some students come back to volunteer at The Bridge upon graduating. The staff does keep in touch with students to some extent, however it is not a major focus since there are new students to serve.

As a senior in high school, it will be a bittersweet day when I can no longer come to The Bridge as a student, however I know that I will stay connected to staff and volunteers through volunteering at The Bridge Teen Center and The Bridge Teen Center’s Thrift Store. I look forward to giving back to the place that has helped me develop into the person that I am today.

Pinball wizards try their hand at the game (courtesy)
Pinball wizards try their hand at the game (courtesy)

Kars4Kids: How do volunteers at The Bridge know they are on the right track with this work, that the work they are doing is important? What makes them feel excited about coming to work each day?

The Big Room (courtesy)
The Big Room (courtesy)

Amber Holup: A true innovator in the field of teen programming, The Bridge Teen Center has been nationally-recognized as a leader in youth development on two occasions (by Youth Service America in 2014 and the Afterschool Alliance in 2011). In addition to being recognized for having some of the most innovative and successful teen programming in the nation, high-ranking executives with both United Way and the Boys and Girls Club have referred to our programs as “the best they have seen.” A 30-year park district veteran also referred to our programs as “the most comprehensive teen programming he’d ever seen.” We also receive calls and emails on a weekly basis from groups all over the country seeking our guidance on how to successfully launch and operate a teen center (29 different states to date). We are humbled by the fact that our little grassroots start-up has become a national trend-setter in just 4 years!

These awards and accolades have pointed out to The Bridge that there is no other place like The Bridge around, however the individual stories of the students that The Bridge has impacted truly let us know that the work that we are doing is important and needed. We’ve watched bullied teens who once walked hunched over with sadness evolve into confident young men and women who are leaders. We have watched other students with eating disorders open up in group counseling sessions called “Soul Café’s,” realize their self-worth, and become healthy again. Watching our students evolve into young adults with dreams and passions that they have discovered through the programs at The Bridge Teen Center make our volunteers excited to come to work every day; the stories fill them with passion for being gladiators who fight for teens.


Daniel: Serving Children Since 1884

Daniel: Serving Kids Since 1884
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Daniel is a place where kids with the worst problems imaginable can get help and it’s been that way since its humble beginnings in 1884. In those days, Jacksonville, Florida was a much smaller place of just 10,000 residents. Still, the town had children in desperate need of help, so a group of church ladies opened the Orphanage and Home for the Friendless in a small rented cottage.

Then, in 1888 disaster struck. Yellow fever swept through the town, leaving many children orphaned and alone. Prominent Jacksonville lawyer and religious leader Col. James Jaquelin Daniel, worked tirelessly to help care for the sick and the orphaned, eventually succumbing to yellow fever, himself.

It was in his honor that the Daniel Memorial Association was founded. Through the years, the Daniel Memorial Orphanage adapted to fill the needs of children at risk, constantly expanding and evolving. Today known simply as “Daniel,” children at risk are still receiving the help there that they can’t get anywhere else, including children with serious mental health issues; children who have been on the wrong side of the law; and children whose parents have not provided the emotional or physical support they need.

Daniel House Old Banner
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Kars4Kids is about helping children grow up to be emotionally strong, healthy, and independent, with the skills they need for independent living. So is Daniel. And that is why Daniel became the recipient of a Kars4Kids small grant. There’s a mission both organizations share: helping and mentoring kids.

It was the mission of Col. James Jaquelin Daniel in 1884 and it’s the mission of Daniel and of Kars4Kids today. Kars4Kids is proud to play a small role in helping Daniel help nearly 2,000 children and their families in Florida. We spoke with Ann Kelley, Director of Special Projects for Daniel, to find out more about this good work.

Kars4Kids: It sounds as though Daniel takes in the worst cases: the kids everyone else has given up on. What is the main thing you aim to give these children, in the short time they are with you?

Ann Kelley: The primary objective for our service model is to facilitate the development of the long-term resilience necessary to thrive along with their peers, in spite of mental health disabilities and other adversities associated with trauma experienced in their young lives. To this end, the agency aims to equip each young person with customized coping strategies so that they are able to make positive, productive decisions in all facets of their day-to-day lives.

(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Kars4Kids: How do you keep less aggressive children safe from the more aggressive children living in your residential facilities? Is this an issue?

Ann Kelley: The intake process for children participating in the on-site residential treatment program is comprehensive, including assessment of risk for aggressive or other detrimental behaviors. It is important to note that most children that meet the qualifications for residential services have exhibited aggressive behaviors to some extent. Safety for all youth begins with a low staff to client ratio (1:4). There is also a recommended 1:12 ratio for nursing staff to which we adhere. The staff psychiatrist is present during daytime business hours and an additional psychiatrist is on-call for all other hours.

For cases at higher risk of harming, a special safety plan is developed by the treatment team.  For the most severe cases, an additional staff member is assigned to provide one-on-one, arms-length supervision of the child. Each employee working directly with youth is trained in best practices for preventing occurrences that could lead to overstimulation and subsequent aggressiveness; de-escalating negative behavior during aggressive episodes; and finally, safe restraint of a child who has become a danger to himself or others. Each incidence that involves aggressive behavior is documented and reviewed by the respective supervisors, staff nurse, and program director to ensure that each case involves the most appropriate response.

Daniel Academy
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Kars4Kids: In terms of your delinquency intervention services, what would you say is the recidivism rate for kids referred to your program? What sort of work do you do with these children? What life skills are they taught?

Ann Kelley: The Daniel Memorial Behavior Management Program (BMP) provides individual therapy for teenagers who have entered the Florida Juvenile Justice system. Therapy is provided on-site at the home of the child to alleviate all barriers to access to services. The life skill component includes a thorough assessment of participant knowledge in each life facet, including health, hygiene,  education, finance/banking/saving, transportation, employability skills, and community service (volunteer opportunities as learning and networking experiences). The results are utilized for treatment planning and counseling. Life skills instruction is “laced” throughout the service period to include referral to community resources. The average success rate as defined by youth who do not reoffend during the one year period following completion of the program averages 75% over a five year period.

Daniel Gives Kids A Leg Up!

Kars4Kids: How many youths are in Daniel’s Independent Living program? Does Daniel help these children attain their emancipation from their parents/provide legal services? So often children who reach the age of 18 find themselves without resources and support: they’ve outgrown them all. Did your Independent Living program grow out of an awareness of this problem? Do you stay in touch with “graduates” of this program?

The Project Prepare Independent Living Program is currently serving 37 youth and young adults. Annually, this number will reach in excess of 60. The agency staff helps youth with the emancipation process through Legal Aid. This is rare, however, because the process is lengthy. Most clients will reach their 18 birthdays before the court process can be completed. For this reason, emancipation is not critical for this population. They can safely reside at the agency-owned apartment complex, work, attend school, and learn life skills without this legal designation.

Project Prepare indeed grew out of the need to address the problem of estrangement between parents and teens transitioning to adulthood. Common themes included parents with substance abuse and mental health problems and parents that could not accept the gender identity or sexual orientation changes of their children.

While in the program, each participant is assigned a case manager and a therapist to help her begin to learn to fully integrate into the community and to develop a network of positive, productive adults that care about them and their respective futures. We are fortunate to have many graduates come back year after year to ask what they can do to give back. Many are doing very well and will always remember the “leg up” during their darkest moments!

Daniel House Banner Independent Living
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Kars4Kids: Do you have children who keep returning to Daniel for services? Are there children you try to keep a little longer, to keep them safe from abusive situations? Can you give some examples?

Ann Kelley: A returning child is an aberration although children do move regularly through our continuum of programs. For example, a child may exit the residential program but enter the community-based mental health program for treatment while living at home and attending their respective neighborhood school. The reason for this is that on-going treatment is critical for the most serious disabilities such as bi-polar disorder, post-traumatic syndrome disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and numerous other personality disorders. For these cases, there are no “quick fixes” but rather on-going development of strategies that help to mitigate symptoms such as anti-social behavior.

Kars4Kids: Are any of Col. Daniel’s descendants or relatives still involved with Daniel?

Ann Kelley: Yes, Col. Daniel’s granddaughters, sisters Jackie Cook and Eleanor Colledge. Ms. Cook is a long-time trustee as was her late husband, Glyn Cook. The Glyn Cook Scholarship Fund was established in Mr. Cook’s honor. Ms. Cook’s daughter, Emily and her husband, local sportscaster Cole Pepper, organize a community fundraiser to benefit the fund each year.  Funds are distributed each year to participants in Project Prepare, the agency program for homeless teens and young adults.

Daniel Cake
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)


Kars4Kids: Tell me about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. What is it? What does it address?

Ann Kelley: EMDR is a highly effective, evidence-based, best practice to treat trauma. The technique uses bilateral stimulation to evoke trauma memories, to re-frame “beliefs” about the trauma and to minimize the detrimental reactions to thoughts of the specific traumatic event. At Daniel, the therapy is used as a supplement treatment for youth when presenting trauma reactions are severe or when the more traditional cognitive behavioral therapy modality does not result in anticipated improvement.

Kars4Kids: The world mostly hears about foster care gone wrong. Tell us about foster care gone right. How do you ensure that the children you refer to foster homes are going to safe places? What controls are in place?

Ann Kelley: Daniel offers foster care placement only through our family-based therapeutic program. Our program is largest in Florida, with 60 licensed homes. Each adult member of a therapeutic foster home completes twice the training hours (60) of a traditional foster parent.  State statute details very specific and stringent guidelines for certification compliance within each home. The licensing process includes evaluation of parent knowledge, parenting practice, a history of lawful behavior, and the safety of the home. All requirements are designed to ensure that each child receives the highest level of safe, nurturing, trauma-informed, family-centered care. In addition to annual re-licensure, each home is visited by a staff therapist either once or twice weekly, depending on the severity of the child’s presenting symptoms.The therapist child ratio of 1:5 and a 24-hour/7 day emergency contact ensure that each parent is afforded immediate professional clinical support to address all issues that potentially may result in safety concerns.

Daniel House Banner Event
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Kars4Kids: How old does one have to be to apply to become a mentor? How do you match up mentors and children?

Ann Kelley: Being a mentor is a rewarding, challenging, unforgettable experience! Getting started is easy. Just a phone call or email directed to the agency volunteer coordinator begins the process. A face-to-face interview is then scheduled to orient the volunteer to Daniel and our many programs and to allow the potential volunteer to describe their life experiences, interests and activities, and motivation for mentoring. Volunteers complete the volunteer application and affidavit of good moral character following the meeting. The Mentor Interest Survey is also completed to allow the applicant to elaborate on the age, race, nationality, and gender of the child that they would like to begin a relationship. The survey includes input for hobbies and interests as well. The next step is completion of the Mentor Training through the Jacksonville Children’s Commission. The 1.5 hour mentoring workshop includes a Level 2 background screen as required by Florida statute for persons working with children. Simultaneously, the coordinator contacts references provided by the volunteer applicant.

Following the interview, background clearance and verification of reference input, the volunteer mentor is ready to be matched with a child. Matches with children are not random! Program staff submit detailed information for each eligible child, including their strengths, greatest needs, interests, and specifically how they feel a mentor will be an asset to the child’s treatment plan.  Mentor/mentees are then matched according to their own similar interests, experiences, gender, race, nationality, etc. During the initial child/mentor meeting, the respective youth worker is included to make the introduction smoother for the child/family. Mentors commit to work with their mentee for at least 1 year, 4-6 hours a month. The success of the relationship is monitored by the volunteer coordinator each month.

Daniel Volunteers
(courtesy: Daniel Memorial, Inc.)

Kars4Kids: It seems like there isn’t anything Daniel Memorial Inc. (Daniel House) doesn’t do for children, whether it is as a full-time residency for children with behavioral problems, finding them foster or adoptive homes, teaching them life skills, or even rehabilitating kids out of juvenile detention facilities. What do you imagine the founder of Daniel, Col. James Jaquelin Daniel, would think and say, if he could see how his little project has evolved?

Ann Kelley: There is no doubt that he would be very pleased and proud that the organization named in his honor has continued to be a leading provider of critical social services for children and families. Col. Daniel had dedicated his entire life to various social causes before succumbing to yellow fever. He was a part of a very active Rotary Club that served a lead role in implementing strategic plans to address the social issues of the time.

Small Grant for TADA! Because Every Child Deserves a Stage

Small Grant for TADA! Because Every Child Deserves a Stage
TADA!’s Resident Youth Ensemble Program has won the nation’s highest distinction, the Coming Up Taller award from the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities. TADA! co-founder and Executive and Artistic Director Janine (Nina) Trevens holding the award. (courtesy)

A very special children’s theater school called TADA! just became the recipient of a small grant from Kars4Kids. We wanted to help TADA! because Kars4Kids is a willing partner to anything that helps children grow and blossom as they should. And we already knew that musical theater could do just that.

After all, we’ve twice covered on the blog the benefits of drama and performance for young people.

Yeah. We wanted to be part of that mission. So now we are.

Kars4Kids spoke to Co-Founder, Executive and Artistic Director of TADA! Janine (Nina) Trevens, to find out how she ended up creating this amazing theater for children and to learn about the theater itself. Our hope in sharing this interview is that others will be inspired to start theater companies for children in their own areas. Because doesn’t every child deserve a stage?

Kars4Kids: When did you first have the idea to open a children’s theater school and how long did it take until you were able to open? Tell us a bit about that process.  

TADA! Ensemble Cast Member Riya Nagpal

Riya Nagpal is a member of the TADA! Ensemble. She’s 13 years old and has been in TADA! for the past four years. Riya agreed to talk with Kars4Kids about what it’s like to be part of TADA!

Riya Nagpal
Riya Nagpal, TADA! Ensemble cast member (courtesy)


Kars4Kids: How old were you when you auditioned for TADA and how did that come about?

Riya Nagpal: I was ten years old when I auditioned for TADA!. I wasn’t really a social butterfly at that point. I always sat in the back of my classes and I didn’t really talk that much to other kids. I didn’t have that many friends and I was too scared to make any. The only way I would break out of my shell was to listen to music and dance and sing and read. So, to break me out of my shell, my mom was looking online to find places to help me talk more when she came across an ad about the TADA! auditions. My mom signed me up, and the story just goes on from there.

Kars4Kids: What does it feel like to be part of TADA? Are the classes difficult? How do you feel about your teachers and classmates at TADA?

Riya Nagpal: It’s like being part of a really close knit family. We have a lot of differences, and we do disagree on things, but in the end, we’re still always there for each other no matter what. All of my teachers and classmates are great. The teachers are always supportive and will offer to go over a routine, a scene, or a song, or whatever you’re struggling with. All of my classmates and friends here are always happy to run through something with you. They will stand behind you no matter what.

Kars4Kids: How many hours a week do you spend on your work with TADA? How do you manage your school work on top of your TADA work? Is that a struggle?

Riya Nagpal: I spend about an average 20 hours a week at TADA!, between rehearsals, events, and volunteering. I’ll be honest; it can be a bit of a struggle to manage homework and TADA!. But I work hard and I try to stay on top of it. I do a lot of my homework at TADA! with help from staff if needed so that when I get home, I only have a little bit left so that I can relax. It’s definitely preparing me for the future.

Kars4Kids: What would your life have been like without TADA? How is your life different as a result of being in TADA?

Riya Nagpal: Now that’s a crazy thing to think about! I mean, TADA!’s done a lot for me, from breaking me out of my shell to giving me a second family, among other things. I mean, I guess I would be even quieter than I was before, barely speaking to anyone. But thanks to them, I have friends, a new family, dozens of new experiences, and thousands of more to come! I’m so grateful to be with them.

Kars4Kids: What do you want to do when you’re finished with school?

Riya Nagpal: I have no idea. I always change my mind. There are lots of options in today’s day and age and there are lots of jobs that I consider important and that I’d like to take up as a career. I always consider the arts as an option, but I think there are a lot of other things that I would like to have as a job.

Kars4Kids:What is the best part of being in musical theater? What does it feel like to be on the stage in front of a gazillion people? How do you feel after a performance?

Riya Nagpal: There are so many great things about being here. One of the best parts of being at TADA! is just having that feeling of being a different person as soon as you step onto that stage. When you take on a character, it’s like you transform into an entirely different person altogether! I mean, it can definitely be nerve-wracking when you’re up on that stage. The first time I did a show, I was terrified! But after you finish, you miss it a lot. When the show’s over, there’s this overall feeling of pride, kind of like when you ride a bike for the first time, or when you ace a test. It’s just so exhilarating, and once it’s over you miss it.

Nina Trevens: I worked as a stage manager in theater for a number of years but I wanted to work with children which was my passion. I saw how that was possible when I ended up working as the production stage manager at The First All Children’s Theater for a number of years but I wanted to direct and that wasn’t a possibility there.

I went back to stage managing adult theater and got a job as a stage manager on a show which was part of a festival. The producer wanted to do all different kinds of theater. My Mom, Francine Trevens, was directing a different show in that festival and she told the producer that I had a children’s theater company which I didn’t at the time. The producer asked me for a proposal—what would my children’s theater be able to do in this festival?

I asked a choreographer friend, Linda Reiff, to partner with me to write the proposal. We went away for the weekend and came up with a dance piece and a new musical that we would be able to do as part of the festival. The producer accepted the proposal and so TADA! began in the summer of 1983.TADA! Camp

We were given the space, equipment, and marketing. Linda and I found contributors and staff and cast the show.  Once that production ended, Linda and I decided we wanted to continue with TADA! so then we went through the process to become a not-for-profit theater company – that took a year – and we continued to produce original musicals and dance pieces performed by kids for family audiences.

Kars4Kids: What was the first musical you performed? How many children were enrolled that first year? Catching Bubbles at TADA!

Nina Trevens: The first musical was The Little House of Cookies and it was done in conjunction with a dance piece entitled, The Odd Ball. The cast was comprised of 15 kids ages 8-17.

Kars4Kids: How many kids are currently enrolled in the regular 8-18 TADA! program?

Nina Trevens: The ensemble is currently comprised of 86 members.

Kars4Kids: Tada! holds musical theater classes for ages 1-2. Now that’s intriguing. The babies must love this! WhatPuppet fun at TADA! exactly do you do with the babies? What is the aim of this class?

Nina Trevens: Our class for age 1-2 is called Creative Musical Play. It is a chance for moms, dads and caretakers to have a play date with their little ones and their friends. The adults get in on the action while watching their child learn rhythmic coordination, language and storytelling skills through song.

Kars4Kids: You have some pretty big names on your artistic advisory board. Chita Rivera and Leslie Uggams, are for instance, recognizable names. How did you manage to enlist their help? It must take some courage to approach the big names. 

Nina Trevens: Many of the people on the Artistic Advisory Board I had worked with in the past so I just asked them if they would lend their names in support of TADA! and they said yes. I guess it took courage—I’ve been told that I’m a brave person but I just knew what I wanted and I knew how much TADA! meant to me so I asked people to be a part of TADA!.

Kars4Kids: The range of programs you have is quite impressive. It’s hard to know how TADA! manages it all. Have you done a count of all the programs you do? How many full time staffers do you employ? 

Nina Trevens: Thank you. I haven’t actually done a count of all the different specific classes/camps/residencies/shows/ensemble events and ensemble classes we do yearly. I think of TADA! as two main programs—the two main arms of TADA! are The Theater/Ensemble Department and The Education Department. TADA! has 8 full-time staff members, 6 year-round part-time, over 40 Teaching Artists and another 15 -25 people hired on a per production basis.

Kars4Kids: Does the TADA! program, being free, target children from lower income homes? Can you tell us about some of your graduates: what they came from and where they are now? We’d would love to hear about your most successful students. We noted Ricky Lake, for instance.  

Nina Trevens: Not at all. The ensemble Program does not actually target children from any specific income bracket. In fact, the goal of the Ensemble Program is to work with youth and teens from different racial, economic and neighborhood backgrounds. Kerry Washington was in a TADA! show when she was a kid and so was Josh Peck (Grandfathered), Jordan Peele (Key & Peele, Life in Pieces), Mizuo Peck (all Night at the Museum movies), Azealia Banks (International Rap Artist), Sasha Allen (national tour of Pippin, The Voice), Christina Vidal (Code Black), Amar Ramasar (New York City Ballet) as well as many other working actors, lawyers, doctors, teachers, moms, dads, and etc.

Kars4Kids: TADA! requires a huge time commitment. Does this tend to cut into school work? We understand that the idea is to build the child so the child performs better in all arenas, including school, but it would seem difficult for a kid to keep up with both. If a child’s grades dip, how is this handled, if at all? Is there ever contact between a child’s school and the TADA! staff?

Nina Trevens: For ensemble members, TADA! can be a huge time commitment at certain times of the year and then not much at other times—it really depends on the member. When any member is actually rehearsing a show—they can be at TADA! 17 hours a week if they are called into every rehearsal but not everyone is called into every rehearsal. Once the show opens then the actors are just there for performances which is generally on the weekends while school is not in session.

When actors arrive at the theater either before rehearsals or performances or classes begin, then they can spend time doing their homework. Most of our Ensemble Members learn time-management skills and find a way to get their homework done as well as rehearse.

Rehearsals are generally only 5-7 weeks and 4-5 days a week after school or on weekends. Most ensemble members do one or two shows a year so it’s not like they have to be here 17 hours every week. TADA!’s ensemble manager and I meet with each ensemble member and a parent at the beginning of each year to devise a plan for them. Each ensemble member’s plan is different based on what else is going on in their life and what they want to do at TADA!.

If a child’s grades in school dip, TADA!’s Ensemble Manager will work with the member and their parents to come up with things that could help such as helping them find homework help, refining their schedule, and finding them a tutor. We do not work with schools directly, we work with the ensemble member and their family.

TADA! Does the Kars4Kids Jingle!

It’s only good manners to teach kids to write thank-you notes. But there are thank-you notes and then there are thank-you notes. The students at TADA! said thank you to Kars4Kids for their small grant in a very big way: they recorded their own version of the Kars4Kids jingle!

Now, how’s that for gratitude?
(We think these kids are just the best!)

Kars4Kids:  We were surprised to note that the suggested age of children taking part in the Banned Broadway Project is from age 13. The subject matter seemed “mature.” We’d be interested in your thoughts on this subject.

Nina Trevens: Banned Broadway was not a production. There is nothing saying every child or even every member (as I said above we meet with each member to devise a plan that is right for them) has to be involved in every production.

Banned Broadway is a TEEN initiative, for high school students, that started last year in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship. We recommended aged 13 and up for our audiences due to the nature of the material which dealt with sex and religion. The material is chosen with input from the teen ensemble members with the staff knowing what they can handle.

I do believe that teens can handle the material we chose to perform. I think people underestimate children and teenagers. Theater allows people to discuss things and maybe think differently than they would have prior to seeing or being in the work. Theater is also subjective—some people might like a work and others won’t—that’s fine.

It’s not about pleasing everyone. TADA!’s mainstage productions are original musicals performed by 8—18 year old ensemble members for family audiences (3 years old and up). The musicals are commissioned specifically for the ensemble from professional theater composers, lyricists and playwrights.

Kars4Kids: The idea of kids getting free tickets to Broadway shows and healthy snacks and so forth, on top of all they learn at TADA! had some of us feeling jealous! What a wonderful thing you do for children. Are you very selective about which kids you accept? Tell us about the selection process. Does a strong family support system factor in? How often do you have to kick kids out of the program?  

Nina Trevens: Thank you again. Ensemble members are chosen through an open audition process based on talent. At the initial audition, auditionees learn a song, and some choreography and then perform in small groups. If they are asked to come to a callback, they learn more songs and choreography and also read scenes.

This past year we saw over 300 people and accepted 30 into the ensemble. It is important that TADA! ensemble members come from different boroughs and backgrounds so we also look at who is already in the ensemble and how to round out the group as a whole. We also look at the productions we are doing in the coming season and see what is needed to cast the shows. Putting all that together is how we chose who we accepted into the ensemble.

It takes a lot for us to kick a kid out of the program. We may have to ask someone to leave a show based on unapproved conflicts and/or too many conflicts or for missing a performance. However, that person would not be kicked out of the program. We have policies and procedures that all ensemble members must follow—we also have procedures if a member isn’t following the policies. Someone would be asked to leave the program due to violence, theft or engaging in unprofessional behavior on or off stage.

Kars4Kids: Unfortunately, TADA! only operates in the New York metropolitan area. Do you have any advice for people outside this area who might want to start a similar community theater program? 

Nina Trevens: I can be hired to consult and share TADA!’s best practices.

The Reading Connection: Promoting Literacy One Book at a Time

The Reading Connection: Promoting Literacy One Book At a Time“Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that The Reading Connection has been awarded a $350 small grant from Kars4Kids! Your mission to improve the lives of at-risk children by promoting literacy is beautiful, and we are honored to have a small part in making your programs possible.”

That was the note our Director of Public Relations, Wendy Kirwan, sent to the wonderful people at The Reading Connection (TRC), an organization dedicated to opening up the world of books to children. Nothing could be closer to our own mission at Kars4Kids of giving kids a helping hand to get ahead. Kars4Kids was happy to do its part to ensure kids have books to read.

TRC sends volunteers into shelters and community centers to read to at-risk children. The organization also sends children books to their homes, free of charge, to make sure that kids have real books to feel, see, and read, a critical facet of developing literacy skills. But the organization doesn’t stop there: TRC also gives workshops to families to teach parents how to foster a love of reading in their children. Family support workers are trained by TRC to teach families the importance of reading and to guide them in getting their children up to scratch on their reading.

Kars4Kids spoke to Judy Hijikata, Director of Communications at TRC, to find out more about the work of TRC, and to see what parents might do at home to help their children fall in love with the printed word.

A TRC volunteer reads aloud to spellbound children.
A TRC volunteer reads aloud to spellbound children.

Kars4Kids: Tell us a bit about the history and mission of The Reading Connection. Who was your founder? How did The Reading Connection get started?

Judy Hijikata: The Reading Connection (TRC) was founded in 1989 by three Arlington, VA, elementary school reading teachers. They noticed that they were seeing kids with different needs in their classrooms, and realized the kids were living at a newly opened nearby shelter.  The teachers began going to the shelter, on a volunteer basis, to spend time reading with the kids and giving them books. That very impulse—the importance of reading aloud with kids, and the power of offering that to kids under stress—has always been the heart of our program. One of the three teachers, Beth Reese, became TRC’s first executive director.

Here’s our mission statement:

The Reading Connection is dedicated to improving the lives of at-risk children and families by helping them create and sustain literacy-rich environments and motivation for reading.  This mission is accomplished by

– Volunteers who read aloud to children at shelters and community centers,
– Donations that provide children with free, new books to keep,
– Workshops that help parents encourage reading and literacy development and
– Training for family support workers who promote the importance of reading. Mother and Son

Kars4Kids: Tell us a bit about how TRC has evolved from its early days. I know you once worked closely with social services agencies to identify at-risk families who might benefit from what The Reading Connection offers. Is that still your focus? What constitutes an at-risk family?

Judy Hijikata: When we first began, in shelters, the families were in housing crisis. Now our largest programs are not in shelters but in affordable apartments, where the families are not in the same degree of housing insecurity. Rather they must meet income requirements to live in the affordable units, and for many, English is not the parents’ first language. For a variety of reasons, the children are at-risk for not reading on grade level by third grade, which is, as your readers might know, a predictor for high school graduation.

Kars4Kids: There’s lots of evidence that pre-literacy skills begin at home, even from birth. At what point in the child’s development does TRC get involved?

Judy Hijikata: Some Book Club moms order books while they are expecting! We love to see this because we know these moms understand the importance of sharing books with their kids from birth, and even before!

Kars4Kids: Tell us about TRC’s Read-Aloud program. How does this work? In how many places do you operate this program? How often does the program run? Must an adult accompany the child?

Judy Hijikata: The Read-Aloud program currently operates in 13 sites, which are either shelters or affordable apartment complexes. The children participating in the Read-Alouds are generally 4 to 11 years old. Each week, a team of volunteers comes in the early evening to spend an hour with the kids reading books on a selected theme; having conversations; doing a theme-related activity and helping the kids choose a free, new book to take with them. There are around 250 volunteers who help in this program, which runs in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia, Washington, DC, and Montgomery County, MD.

At a TRC Mother's Day event, a volunteer reads, "Are You My Mother?"
At a TRC Mother’s Day event, a volunteer reads, “Are You My Mother?” to toddlers.

Kars4Kids: It’s awesome that the children get a choice of books—and we love that there’s a Margaret Wise Brown book on your toddler and preschoolers book list. How do you choose the books you offer? How often do you update your reading list How often do the children in the book club receive books by mail?

Judy Hijikata: Letting kids choose their books is a very important motivational factor, as you can imagine. Books are purchased for the Book Club (as opposed to books for the Read-Aloud, which come from community donations) and selected by knowledgeable TRC staffers with years of experience helping kids choose books in retail and library settings. In addition to years of experience, we are guided by industry reviews and by criteria we’ve developed. You’ll notice that approximately 1/3 of the books on the Book Club book list are bilingual English/Spanish.  Many of the client families speak Spanish as their first language, and it is very important to provide moms and dads with books they feel comfortable reading.

The wish list on the website is updated every six months. The Book Club booklist is new each month. Kids in the Book Club receive books once a month. In each book order is an order form which they can use to order books for the next month’s mailing. Also included in the package are hints for parents on ways they can use the books they’ve ordered for conversation starters and/or skills development.

Book Club families are registered in the Book Club by the family support workers and home visiting staff of social service agencies. Kids registered range from newborn to 5 years of age.  Siblings (from prenatal to 18) can also receive books through the Book Club.

Promoting Literacy: A Generational Thing

Kars4Kids: With just six permanent staff members, you must have a large pool of volunteers to handle the enormous amount of work you do: workshops, the Read-Aloud program, processing book orders and mailing out the books. How many volunteers are helping out at TRC? Where do you find your volunteers?

Judy Hijikata: TRC employs 4 full-time employees and 4 part-time employees. You’re right, we could not do it without our large and dedicated volunteer corps, which numbers nearly 300. The majority of these (250) are Read-Aloud volunteers, but we also benefit from the time and dedication of folks who help pack up the Book Club packages, lead Reading Family Workshops and help out in the office.

TRC's early days. Volunteers processing order forms in the 1990's.

Kars4Kids: Does TRC envision expanding its services beyond the DC, Virginia, Maryland tri-state area?  

Judy Hijikata: We do plan to expand over the next few years, but will stay within the DC metro area. Our Maryland presence is new—our Read-Aloud program opened there in 2014. In 2016, we plan to expand again in Montgomery County, MD, with another Read-Aloud site in March, followed by a new Book Club partner in June 2016. In 2017, we plan to expand further in Fairfax County, VA, with both the Read-Aloud and Book Club program. And every Book Club and Read-Aloud partner also receives Reading Families Workshops.

Kars4Kids: If you could give parents—not just parents of at-risk children, but all parents—just one piece of advice on fostering literacy skills in their children, what would it be?

Judy Hijikata: This is our mantra, first articulated in the 1985 study, Becoming a Nation of Readers.  (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED253865.pdf): “The most important thing you can do to set your child up for future success in school is to read aloud to him or her.”


Social Emotional Learning Gives Kids WINGS

Social Emotional Learning Gives Kids WINGSSocial emotional learning (SEL) can help children soar through life challenges by giving them healthy ways to vent and channel their strong feelings. Once you give children the tools they need to deal with their emotions, it frees them up for learning school subjects like math and science. And getting through school successfully means getting good jobs and breaking the cycle of poverty.

This is the work that WINGS for Kids is doing, and that is why Kars4Kids has awarded the organization a small grant. Kars4Kids shares WINGS for Kids’ mission of helping children get ahead. WINGS is doing terrific work in this arena!

Read all about WINGS for Kids in this interview with Barbra Buoy, Development Associate at WINGS for Kids.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about your founder, Ginny Deerin. Who was she? What drove her to found WINGS?

Barbra Buoy: Ginny was a mid-career professional in the mid-90s when she realized that she was struggling with her personal and professional relationships, was making rash decisions, and was having trouble managing her emotions. She came across a book on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman and found that the teachings in the book were applicable not only for her life, but for kids from vulnerable backgrounds.

Ginny Deerin, Founder of WINGS for Kids.
Ginny Deerin, Founder of WINGS for Kids.

Kars4Kids: Who is eligible for WINGS? It sounds great! How does a parent manage to get his child into the WINGS program?

Barbra Buoy: WINGS programs serve elementary schools kids in Title I schools (schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families as designated by the U.S. Department of Education). We currently have nine direct service programs in three states. We intentionally seek kids who are exhibiting significant behavioral and/or academic challenges. For parents who are interested in what we teach, but may not have a formal WINGS program in their area, we offer a free DIY kit on our website.

Kars4Kids: How many children have you served through the years?

Barbra Buoy: More than 5,000.

Kars4Kids: Can you give us an example of an activity children do at WINGS to strengthen their social and emotional skills?

Barbra Buoy: We have a technique to help kids manage their emotions called “Hold Up, Hijacker!”  The gist of this technique is that when a child feels that an emotion like anger, frustration, or confusion is threatening to make them have an inappropriate emotional outburst, they can teach themselves not to be hijacked by the emotion, and to replace it instead with positive self-talk.

Kars4Kids: Tell us about the creed. 

Barbra Buoy: The creed was written about eight years ago at a senior staff retreat. Our CEO and long-term program staff came up with this simple kid-friendly poem that’s now recited every day by WINGS kids and staff. It’s our core social and emotional learning (SEL) skills in kid-friendly language and reinforces the learning objectives that we teach each week.

The WINGS Creed

I soar with WINGS. Let me tell you why.

I learn lots of skills that help me reach the sky.

I love and accept who I am on the inside

and know my emotions are nothing to hide.

Life’s full of surprises that make me feel different ways.

If I can control myself I will have much better days.

I understand the choices I make should be what’s best for me to do

and what happens is on me and not any of you.

I understand others are unique.

I want to learn more about everyone I meet.

I want to step into their shoes and see what they are going through.

I am a friend. I support and trust. Working together is a must.

Kind and caring I will be.

I listen to you. You listen to me.

I soar with WINGS. I just told you why. All of these things are why I fly high.

Kars4Kids: Who is eligible to become a staff member at WINGS? How did the alliance between WINGS and AmeriCorps come about?

Barbra Buoy: For our part-time staff who directly work with WINGS kids in small groups, we intentionally recruit and train college students. We want college to be a value and expectation for WINGS kids. Many of our full-time staff at one time worked as WINGS Leaders in the program setting. We’ve always thought of what we do as “service.” About five years ago, we applied to the Corporation for National and Community Service and were awarded our first AmeriCorps grant.

Social Emotional Learning: EQ

Kars4Kids: We hear a lot about “social emotional learning.” Why is there such an emphasis on this aspect of learning? Isn’t this something that we used to take for granted? When did this become part of the dialogue on education and why?

Barbra Buoy: We’ve been doing this for 19 years and know that it is a key strategy for helping to close the achievement and opportunity gaps between kids in poverty and their more affluent peers. Kids from fragile environments have more “clutter” to filter through than middle-class and wealthy children. SEL helps them connect to their emotions and fosters the ability to make positive choices about their own lives.

Now, employers have also seen the research that suggests that EQ is just as important as IQ in creating a balanced, productive workforce.

Kars4Kids: Can you give us examples of daily achievements you might see at WINGS?

Barbra Buoy: We love to see kids who are “Creed-ing” each other. That is, kids who use creed language to establish personal boundaries and bring our positive behavior in themselves and their peers. They use language in our creed that references teamwork, kindness, positive decision-making and enhanced personal relationships.

Kars4Kids: Your website states that you have a 4-star Charity Navigator rating. Tell us about that: what is it that WINGS accomplishes to get that outstanding grade? To what do you attribute your success?

Barbra Buoy: Several things have allowed us to achieve and retain that rating: a codified, researched and evaluated program model; stellar financial management and audits; a value system that all staff believe and model.

Kars4Kids: What is the future of WINGS? Do you see WINGS expanding throughout the country?

Barbra Buoy: WINGS will definitely expand. Our learning agenda this year features several pilots (in places like Detroit and Los Angeles) that will help us find the right balance of delivery systems.

Saving and Protecting Children’s Lives: Hibiscus Children’s Center

Saving and Protecting Children's Lives: Hibiscus Children's Center

Helping children is the primary mission of Kars4Kids. That’s why we created a small grants program for helping worthy organizations that share our mission. And it’s why we’ve awarded a small grant to the Hibiscus Children’s Center, where abused and neglected children can find a warm, safe, and loving place to heal.  Join us in congratulating Hibiscus Children’s Center and read about how Hibiscus is helping children in this frank interview with Tracy Savoia, Marketing Director for the Hibiscus Children’s Center.

K4K: How did Hibiscus Children’s Center come into being? Was there an event that jolted the founder, LaVaughn Tilton into action?

Tracy Savoia: In 1985, Hibiscus Founder LaVaughn Tilton was already a passionate advocate for abused children. As she sat on the board of the Center for Prevention of Child Abuse, a non-profit that trained volunteers to work with abusive parents, LaVaughn asked the question, “What about the children? We don’t have any facilities for them.”

LaVaughn was catapulted into action by the news of the senseless and tragic death of a toddler at the hands of his own father. LaVaughn and her family launched a campaign across the Treasure Coast that galvanized the community to stand up for abused children and ensure they had a safe place to temporarily call home.

Her quest to create what would become the Treasure Coast’s only licensed emergency shelter for abused children, ages birth to 12, inspired builders, contractors and local citizens to embrace this vision of a safe haven for children. With the building’s construction funded by private donations of property, materials, services and funds, Hibiscus Children’s Shelter in Jensen Beach opened its doors in October, 1989, with twelve beds.

K4K: How many years has Hibiscus Children’s Center been in operation? Have you served many children?

Tracy Savoia: The Center was founded in 1985, which means we are celebrating 30 years of helping children. Hibiscus Children’s Center has served thousands of abused, abandoned and neglected children over three decades and that translates to 250,000 safe nights.

K4K: Tell me about your volunteers.

Tracy Savoia: We have over 300 incredible volunteers that help in our thrift shop; mentor and tutor children; cook meals; read to children; paint and help with maintenance items; fundraise and advocate in the community for our children; and much more.

Volunteers come from all walks of life. Some come to Hibiscus due to personal past experiences and some just want to invest in children’s lives. All volunteers are trained and matched with their areas of interest. Volunteers must have a up-to-date background check to work with the children.

K4K: How many children are currently under the care of Hibiscus Children’s Center? What are some of the services you provide them?

Tracy Savoia: Currently, we house 75 children in our residential facilities in Martin and Indian River Counties. These are abused children and youth—birth to 18 years of age—who have been removed from their homes by the State.

Hibiscus provides shelter, food, clothing, medical and educational services and therapeutic services by our professionally trained mental health services staff. Children and youth enjoy recreational and educational outings while there are opportunities for career preparation provided to our teens. Most importantly, the children and youth are loved, cared for and know they are valuable and important to us.

K4K: Tell us about the kind of situations you’re dealing with at Hibiscus Center.

Tracy Savoia: In our over three decades of operation, we have seen and heard incredibly tragic stories of abuse that children have endured. Abuse can be physical, sexual, mental, neglect and/or abandonment. All of these types of abuse leave deep emotional wounds, even when the physical scars have healed.

There have been many success stories as well—children who walked in to our shelter terrified and abused, but after love and care from the staff and volunteers, the healing process begins. It may just be a smile; doing well in school; behaving appropriately; all of these are small successes for our children. We are excited when children receive loving new homes after their parents’ rights have been terminated. A new future awaits them in a loving and safe home; and several times, we have witnessed sibling groups adopted together.

K4K: Do you ever receive the same children as repeat residents at Hibiscus Children’s Center? Can parents who abuse or neglect their children be rehabilitated? Whose responsibility is it to determine whether it is safe for a child to return home?

Alexis’ story shows how community support can dramatically improve quality of life for a youth.

When Alexis was 5 years-old, she came to the Hibiscus Children’s Shelter as a scared young girl who had no idea who was going to take care of her or if she would ever see her family again. Over the years, Alexis spent time at the Shelter and in several foster homes. Not having a stable home or permanent family resulted in behavioral issues in school as well as displays of anger towards those around her.

A few years after leaving Hibiscus, Alexis returned as a teenager and was placed in the Hibiscus Village in Vero Beach. She was a defiant and angry 15 year-old girl. The years of moving from foster home to foster home and the difficult circumstances of her family had taken their toll on her.

But the Village staff never gave up on Alexis. They persisted in helping her realize her value and the potential for a better future. With time, Alexia began to formulate goals and envision the life she wanted.

Alexis focused on schoolwork and threw herself into softball and several other activities. The young girl’s determination toward getting her life in order was evident in her resilience and in her willingness to work hard in school and with her mental health therapist. The therapist provided Alexis with tools to handle her anger and hurt in appropriate ways. She was a young lady who had experienced so many obstacles and disappointments at the hands of those who should have provided love and safety for her, but she was fighting her way back.

Alexis participated in the Hibiscus Career Pathways to Independence Program which assists teens in preparing for the future through career training and preparation. Working closely with the program coordinator, Alexis developed the life skills, career knowledge and resources she needed to succeed. On turning 18, Alexis was ready to leave the Village, now equipped to lead n independent and productive life.

A terrific job opportunity led Alexis to move from Vero Beach, but the young lady has kept in touch with the Village staff and is a mentor to a teen currently living at the Village.
Alexis works fulltime at a nearby mental health facility, while studying part time in college to become a mental health counselor. She feels and is successful and enjoys her new life. Many is the time Alexis has stated, “I don’t know what I would have done without Hibiscus. I would not have made it here and on the road to a productive life.”

Tracy Savoia: Yes, many children have been placed in our residential facilities multiple times. It is the responsibility of the State to determine if a child should be removed, where he or she will be placed and if the child can be returned home.The State also orders any treatment deemed necessary for the parents.

K4K: Are abuse and neglect of children specific to low-income families?

Tracy Savoia: Abuse and neglect do not have socio-economic boundaries. Such issues occurs in all walks of life, economic levels, and status. However, the added stress of financial burdens can sometimes manifest in child abuse and/or neglect. Hibiscus has a prevention program in St. Lucie County that addresses these issues with families on a voluntary basis to help the family through a crisis and help to keep their children safe.

K4K: Do you ever have children who beg to stay at Hibiscus Children’s Center when it is time for them to return home or go to a foster home?

Tracy Savoia: Yes! Many children and youth have said that Hibiscus is the first place they have felt truly safe. They also have many positive opportunities they did not experience at home.

K4K: What is the ultimate goal of Hibiscus Children’s Center? What do you see as its future?

Tracy Savoia: The ultimate goal and mission of Hibiscus Children’s Center is to save and protect children’s lives. Through our many programs—prevention, intervention, recovery, and residential facilities—we strive to do this every day. Hibiscus Children’s Center has a strong foundation that has been built on 30 years of support and dedication to our mission. Our future is strong and we will continue to grow and change to provide the critical services our children and families need.

Kars4Kids Packages Add Holiday Cheer

holiday packages ready to be shipped out from Kars4Kids

It’s the holiday season, and there is a festive feeling of cheer and goodwill in the air! At Kars4Kids, we are doing our part to spread that feeling to children across the country with our annual holiday packages.

We start preparing for the holidays early as our warehouse is filled with all kinds of goodies to be packed into cheerfully-decorated boxes. Neatly stuffed with toys, treats and educational materials, the cartons form bright spots of joy that are distributed to families across the country.

It’s not long before the thank-yous start pouring in. From a family in Florida, “Thank you so much for our box! We love you! The kids love the boxes and opening them!”

Every year, countless families tell us that the surprise package made their holiday happier and more meaningful. Which is, of course, why we send them every year. Because the holidays should be a time for happiness.

And on that note, we wish YOU a happy holiday!

Summer Road Safety Tips

We are proud to present this guide to summer road safety.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the summer holidays are the most dangerous days to drive. July Fourth, Labor Day and Memorial Day each surpass New Year’s Eve and Thanksgiving as the holidays with the most fatalities. There are many factors that lead to the dangers, including drunk driving and the increase in traffic volume; however one factor that many drivers may not consider is that weather conditions can create road hazards as the temperature heats up.  Here is the comprehensive list of hazards and solutions to keep drivers safe this summer:

Safe Summer Driving Manual

With Memorial Day just a memory, summer vacation beckons in the near distance. We can practically smell the heat, the saltiness of the ocean, and good times. You’ve worked hard all year and you’re itching for time off.  In the haste to get away, however, it’s important not to overlook the hazards that come with summer driving. Take some time to read through these tips—they may just save your summer—and your life. Summer driving means high temperatures, wall-to-wall traffic, and heavily traveled roads. Such conditions not only stress your car but can stress the driver, too. With some advance preparation, you can minimize the chances of a breakdown. Having planned and prepped for all eventualities (well, most of them) you’ll feel calm and ready to cope, no matter what.


Do you know where your keys are? It can be hard to keep track of your keys and keep them dry while at the beach. During the year, we have pockets. Not so when you’re in a swimsuit or trunks. Keys can be swallowed by sand and salt water can damage the circuits so that a transponder key becomes a worthless piece of metal and plastic. Think about a safe, dry place where you can keep your keys safe during a jaunt on the beach and this is important: remember where that is. It’s also worth your while to read the manual that comes with your car detailing alternate methods of unlocking your car door in case of remote key failure. There’s almost always another way and trust us, you’ll want to know about it if you ever experience a key fail.


Check your tires because stuff happens. Hot temperatures tend to aggravate minor damage to rubber tires. If your tires are low on air, there will be added friction and heat as you drive, stressing the rubber even further. Weak spots on your tires may be overcome leading to punctures and blow-outs. To prevent such an occurrence, give your tires a thorough going over before your road trip. Look for cracks and check for sufficient air inflation. You may want to increase the air pressure to compensate for any extra weight you may be carrying on your road trip. If your tires seem iffy, replace them. And make sure you have a spare!

Cooling System

Keep your cool. Summer is a cooling system nightmare. High temperatures tend to aggravate any minor cooling system issues which can lead to overheating and expensive repairs. Check the level of coolant in your car on a regular basis. Watch for wet or white stains on coolant hoses which can indicate a leak. Last but not least, check to make sure your car fan is in good working order. To do this, run your car for a bit to warm it up and then leave your engine idle for around 10 minutes. You should be able to hear your fan kick in. The fan cools your engine when you’re crawling at a snail’s pace or stuck in holiday traffic.

Reduce Drag to Conserve Fuel

Wasting fuel is a drag. Carrying luggage on your roof can cause drag (resistance) and burn up fuel. You can reduce this effect by using a roof box or by tying things down on a roof rack and wrapping them tightly in plastic sheeting. Keep the load as low as possible. When you get where you’re going, remove your roof rack or box to cut back on drag during day trips. Open windows can also cause drag when you’re traveling the highways, not so much while driving in town. When you’re out on the road, air conditioning is a better bet. But if you’re just running errands in town, open windows are fine.

Driving Fatigue

Road weary. You’d think that just sitting and turning a steering wheel wouldn’t be so tiring, but we all know that driving is a tiring enterprise. It may be about the hypnotic quality of the scenery whooshing by, the feeling of the motor, or the need to be constantly focused, but whatever causes it, road fatigue is a real phenomenon. Combat the fatigue by taking a 20-minute break for journeys lasting 3 hours or more, or for longer trips, take a break every couple of hours. It’s better to take several 20-minute breaks than one long stop. Don’t eat heavy meals or drink alcohol before a road trip. If all else fails, gulp down a couple of cups of good strong coffee. The caffeine should get you through.

Hay Fever

Nothing to sneeze at. Summer allergies, for instance hay fever, can create hazardous driving conditions. For one thing, a sneeze of 70 mph can cause you to lose your vision for up to 110 yards. For another thing, allergy medications can cause drowsiness and put you at risk for poor driving judgment or worse—falling asleep on the road. allergy4 If you have severe allergies, it’s best to get someone else to drive. But if that’s not possible, take some precautions. Have your doctor try you out on different allergy medications until you find one that doesn’t make you drowsy.  Use the air conditioner in your car rather than open windows or use the air vents. The idea is to lessen your exposure to pollen. Regularly vacuum your car and wash car mats to remove dust and pollen. Wear sunglasses to reduce the effect of glare on already bleary eyes. Keep tissues at the ready. Feel a sneeze coming on? Slow down and allow your car to drop back in traffic a bit.


sunny2 In broad daylight. Anything that impairs vision poses a driving hazard and that includes bright sunlight that shines directly into the driver’s eyes. The dangers of glare are especially keen in the late afternoon and very early morning and have caused many a car accident. Keep a pair of sunglasses at the ready making sure the lenses are clean and contain no scratches. Ensure your windshield is spotless, since smears on the glass, whether inside or outside your car, can catch and amplify sunlight.


Don’t drink and drive. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), close to 11,000 drivers and passengers die in alcohol-related crashes each year. That comes to one death every 50 minutes. It’s fine to toss down a few drinks at a party, but not if you’re planning to drive home. Make sure you have a designated driver to get you home safely. This is the person who agrees to avoid drinking alcohol for the evening so the rest of you can get smashed and then arrive home unscathed. Let your designated driver do the driving. No volunteers for the job? Call a cab.

Navigating Storms

rainy2 Stormy weather. If you must drive when a storm is expected, stay tuned to your car radio to keep apprised of the storm’s development. In rainy weather, use your low beams and drive slower than usual. Brake earlier to leave more distance between your car and the car ahead. If the rain becomes very heavy, pull over onto the shoulder of the road, making sure to choose a section of the road with no trees that could become uprooted and fall onto your car. Use your emergency flashing lights. In case of lightning, avoid touching conducting (metal) surfaces both in and outside of your car.

Cyclists And Pedestrians

Keep your distance. It may not be so important when you’re out on the highway, but when driving in town, keep your eyes peeled for motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians. The NHTSA says that a pedestrian is injured in a car accident every 8 minutes and killed in a car crash every 113 minutes. The most danger-laden period is in the days surrounding Memorial Day and the Fourth of July when traffic increases. Keep everyone safe by pulling slowly out of side streets, while verifying that the area is clear of all foot and cyclist traffic. Also, leave lots of space between you and cyclists or pedestrians when yielding. Last but not least, take care when opening car doors. Slow and careful equals safety for all.

Loose Objects

Batten down the hatches. It’s valid to need camping or scuba diving gear and there’s always one more thing you need to bring on a road trip. But loose objects pose a driving hazard. Any sudden jolt can send bottles, sippy cups, and CD’s flying. A single half-pound object, moving at 60 mph can hit with the impact of a 30-pound object. It’s best to keep things tightly contained, including you and your passengers. Buckle up those seat belts!


Keep your distance. Not sure you’re leaving enough space between you and the car ahead? Apply the two-second rule. Choose a marker up ahead, such as a billboard or a rest stop sign and watch the car in front of you pass it by. Count, “One thousand and one, one thousand and two,” and see if you pass the marker before you say, “two.” If so, you’re not leaving sufficient distance between your car and others on the road.

Large Vehicles

Size counts. Trucks and tractor trailers should be responded to with caution (same goes for cars with boats hitched to them by trailers and RV’s). Their size impedes their response time. They are not only slower but have wider blind spots. They may not see you coming from behind. Caution is the rule.


Tune ‘em out. Distracted driving is poor driving and can result in car crashes and loss of life. The main source of driving distraction is your mobile phone. Taking or making calls (even by Bluetooth) and worse yet, texting while driving, are proven dangers. In 2011, 23% of auto collisions (1.3 million car crashes) involved cell phone use.

Road Rage

It’s a two-way street. Sometimes it’s you getting angry in response to other drivers and sometimes you’re merely the focus of another driver’s rage. Then again, if another driver is blowing off steam and you’re the focus, you may find yourself getting angry, too. The main thing to remember is that road rage is a form of distracted driving, much like driving while drinking coffee, switching radio stations, or texting.

  • Drive when you’re calm. If you’ve just had an argument, wait a few minutes and cool down before you drive, even if it means walking around the block a few times.
  • If another driver curses you out or acts inappropriately, don’t react. Keep your thoughts to yourself. Take deep breaths.
  • Always drive responsibly so as not to anger other drivers.
  • Don’t cut in front of other cars or honk inappropriately. Remember to always leave that two-second gap between your car and the car in front of you to avoid tailgating.
  • Don’t toss things out the window, for instance, cigarette butts or candy wrappers.
  • If someone is trying to cut in front of you, just let them. Slow down and wait for them to pull ahead if they’ve already inched into your lane.
  • Avoid eye contact with angry drivers and don’t even think of making a rude gesture. You be the mature one that defuses the situation and keeps everyone safe and alive. If forced to stop, stay inside your car and keep your motor running so you can take off when you have the chance. Call the cops from your mobile phone. Use your car horn if necessary. Turn on your hazard lights.
  • Do you feel as though you’re being followed? Are you worried for your safety? Drive on within the speed limit to the closest police station or at least, pull into a busy mall parking lot—there’s safety in numbers.  Memorize the license plate of the angry driver’s car and take note of the car’s make and color. Remember as much as you can about the driver.
  • If you see someone else being victimized by a driver in a rage, don’t stop and try to help, it will just make the driver angrier. Instead, get to a safe place where you can stop and phone the police. For more tips follow Kars4Kids on FacebookTwitter, or on our other blog.

Kars4Kids “Am I My Mother?” Contest

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Image Credit: P.D. Eastman

We’ve all heard someone say it. Chances are good we’ve said it ourselves. We’ll do or say something and all of a sudden, it hits us. “Am I my mother?” For some of us, it’s the way we find ourselves talking to our children. It may just be the foods we like to cook, a habit we find ourselves falling into, or the values we hold dear.

This Mother’s Day, let’s appreciate the profound effect our mothers have had on our lives by celebrating what makes us similar! How are you like your mother? (Guys, you can answer this question too!) Tell us and you could win a night out with Mom with a $200 StubHub gift certificate. Choose between a theater, concert or sporting event and enjoy a night in town with the woman who made you- you.

Each individual is entitled up to 18 entries if all sharing options below are used.  Questions specifically regarding how to enter can be emailed to mothersday@kars4kids.org.  Drawing will be Friday, May 9th before 12pm. Good luck!!!

Confused by this widget? It’s simple:

Step 1) *** Log in to raffle widget below with Facebook or Email

Step 2) *** Follow the instructions to comment on our blog –  How are you like your Mom?

Step 3) ***Follow the instructions to either Follow us on Twitter OR Like us on Facebook

Step 4) Follow the instructions to earn more entries

Step 5) Hope for the best!



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