Kathy Tuell has served as president of the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter for the past 14 years, and like any non-profit these days, her funding streams and private donations are eroding faster that the polar ice caps.
But Kathy admits that she comes to work everyday because she’s a mother.
And ten years ago, she was the mother who drove her car up and down the streets of her neighborhood, asking her daughter’s friends if they’d seen her. Her oldest daughter, strong-willed and desperate for direction following her parents’ divorce, was constantly on the run.
“I want to know that if I’m that mother in Michigan and my child has runaway to the Florida Keys, there is somewhere here for her to go,” Kathy said emphatically.
FKCS not only serves abused, abandoned and neglected children who reside in Monroe County.
Because of their contractual agreements at the state and federal level, they’re also in a position to assist runaways from across the country.
As families battle to remain together and hold on to fragile homes in the fledgling global economy, many teenagers find solace at the end of the road in an escape to the warm and sunny Florida Keys.
The shelter also serves as a catchall for Monroe County children who’ve fallen through the cracks and missed every possible opportunity for rescue on the way down. Whether repeatedly truant from school or picked up by law enforcement, children are constantly brought to the shelter with no other place to turn.
Kathy and Development Director Janey Miller sat down one recent afternoon with The Weekly to recount the story of a father who dropped his own son off at the shelter in Tavernier.
“Last Friday night, I was preparing to leave the building when a father, at the end of his rope, just dumped his teenage son on our doorstep,” Janey recounted. “One of our counselors was quick to stop the father and seek more information, but what she got was shocking. The father said, ‘You have to take him! If I’m forced to take him home with me, there will be violence tonight!’ the father exclaimed.”
Janey said though she bore witness to the whole scene, the most heartbreaking part was watching the teenager as he heard his father’s angry words.
Unfortunately, occurrences like these are becoming increasingly more common.
Kathy said residents at the shelter are not just rebellious and defiant children, but often they’re in stuck in a situation completely beyond their control and through no fault of their own.
“There are only so many times a child can be abused and broken before they’re actions are simply a response to their environment,” she continued. “We’re not here to judge them, but to simply be here. Just like a hospital, this shelter is a necessary part of our community’s infrastructure.”
FKCS provides both short-term emergency shelter care and long-term care for children from birth through seventeen. In addition to the shelter services, FKCS offers counseling for kids and families throughout all of Monroe County. In the last year alone, FKCS programs served 735 clients. The Residential programs served 148 clients. Non-residential and counseling programs served 589 clients.
Since the organization’s inception 20 years ago, FKCS has served 22,000 children, youth and families in various ways.
“This is not about distributing coloring books and handing out Christmas gifts,” Kathy explained. “We operate in highly regulated, residential environment where you’re responsible for 24-hour management of unmanageable children. We can’t simply feed them less. We can’t continue to cut staff without sacrificing the services available to our kids.”
In 1995, FKCS had six full time counselors on staff.
“In the midst of all the dirtiness, chaos and messiness of life, we’re here as an available support system for families and kids,” she said.
Kathy continued that the constant erosion of government funding over the past six years has forced job cuts and trimmed the operating budget to the bone. FKCS’s current annual budget is just shy of $2 million. This allows them to provide facilities and services at no cost to clients.
Though FKCS receives funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida Department of Children and Families and Monroe County (FL) Human Services, they are charged with raising nearly 40 percent of that funding from the community through private donations.
One of two major annual fundraisers, the eighth annual Mayor’s Ball is slated for Jan. 9, 2010, at the Casa Marina Beach Resort in Key West.
The Mayor’s Ball is one of the events FKCS depends on every year to raise the much needed funds to continue providing care, help and hope to our most vulnerable citizens—our Keys children and families in need.
The evening will begin with a champagne reception honoring Key West Mayor, Craig Cates and wife Cheryl. The evening will be filled with dinner and dancing, featuring the Bubba System Band and an auction will round out the event.
Islamorada Mayor Achenberg
Key West Mayor Cates
Monroe County Mayor Neugent
Marathon Mayor Snead
Key Colony Beach Mayor Sutton