Counselors available to community at large

There are children in desperate situations in the Florida Keys … but the crisis is not always visible to the naked eye.

“We’ve had situations where the doorbell rings at the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter in Tavernier at 11 p.m., and by the time the supervisor can get to the door, all they see are the taillights of a disappearing car and a 10-year-old on the doorstep,” said Jayne Wawerna. “We pass these kids in the grocery store or on the streets and we don’t know that they were never loved the way they deserved to be.”

Wawerna, chief development officer for The Florida Keys Children’s Shelter is proud of the establishment that is turning 25 this year. In a typical year, it touches the lives of 600 children, teens and their families while operating on a $1.8 million budget derived mostly from grants and contracts with local, state and federal government. It has about 30 employees and “peak” seasons — usually early fall and late spring. The FKCS operates three residential programs, a program for runaways and homeless youth, plus it has a robust counseling service available to the community.

“We can help families with a wide variety of issues. It could be something as simple as a kid that doesn’t want to go to school to a child who is pushing the boundaries of the law by experimenting with drugs. The counseling can prevent escalating or bad or difficult behavior.”

Children do not have to be residents of the program for the family to receive help from the FKCS. Wawerna said she wants the community to turn to the shelter before a crisis.

“They can talk to a residential counselor and gets some advice on parenting issues,” she said. “There’s not a parent out there who hasn’t experienced moments of difficulty and need a little advice.”

Clergy, teachers, school counselors and law enforcement officers regularly refer families to the Florida Keys Children’s Shelter for that type of “outpatient help. The shelter is also informed about other resources in the community and can refer those seeking help.

“Whether it’s the homeless advocates, Guidance Care Center, Department of Children and Families or Juvenile Justice, the people who do our type of work have a very positive network,” Wawerna said. “They put kids and families first.”

Although the shelter is by no means a cure-all (for that to happen, the entire cycle of abuse must be broken), there are success stories. One of Wawerna’s favorite examples is about a teenage girl who was cutting school and running away because of a series of conflicts with her mother.

“The girl stayed at our shelter for thirty days while our counselors worked with both of them to sort things out,” she said. “The girl is now living happily at home and her truancy problem has disappeared.”

The need, Wawerna said, will never go away. She compares the work of the FKCS to that of a hospital emergency room or firefighters ready to roll at a moment’s notice. Kids who have been disciplined by being locked in the trunk of a car, or forced to eat their own vomit, need … love.

“These kids need immediate, emergency care. Like the two children that were six and eight years old. Their mother, from out of state, told them they were playing a game and left them at two different gas stations in Key West. Those kids need a safe place to be right away,” Wawerna said. “They may only need to stay 24 hours or as long as 12 months.”

Wawerna said the shelter can spot trends. When the economy suffers a downturn those stresses can easily translate to family life. And human trafficking, or sex trafficking, is also on the rise, including the sickening instance that allegedly happened inside FKCS’ own walls. A staffer, Ricky Atkins, was arrested on two felony counts in September of 2014 for allegedly taking two girls from the shelter to the mainland to be used for prostitution. The shelter immediately terminated his employment and cooperated thoroughly with the various agencies investigating the crime. A trial is pending.

“That employee passed every single type of screening before being hired,” said Mike Puto, executive council chairman for FKCS. “And he was very well liked. There’s just no way we could have anticipated that.”

Meanwhile, the shelter’s work goes on. It can provide beds for about 25 children, including some that are transferred from the mainland who need to be removed from dangerous situations. It prepares for various fundraisers, like the recent Mayor’s Ball in Key West that raised about $50,000 for the facility. And it continues to cajole private donors into giving.

“I support anything that helps the people in the community especially when it comes to children. The children do not have control of what always happens and they cannot provide for themselves. It is absolutely important we have a group like the Florida Keys Children Shelter to care for them,” said Key West Mayor Craig Cates.

Wawerna said keeping children safe and free from abuse is rewarding work. Unfortunately, constant funding cuts make it very difficult.

“Sadly, many of our community friends believe the myth that the care these children require is paid in full by someone – or some government agency – this is not so. The truth is we need individuals and foundations to partner with us more than ever before,” she said.

• Project Lighthouse

On the surface, Project Lighthouse is a place to “jam” on the house instruments, or do some arts and crafts. On another level, it’s a place to start a conversation about skills for living on the street safely … or maybe even about going home.

In its 10th year, the facility served 158 clients — teenagers and young adults up to 21 years of age. The center has one full-time director and two part-time employees.

“I also have what I call my street ambassadors,” said Jai Somers, the project coordinator. “They help point youth in our direction.”

That could be a volunteer at a soup kitchen, or even an adult person who is also homeless. Staff also seeks out young travelers where they tend to congregate such as the beach and parks.

Sometimes, the youth arrive in Key West on the arm of a new Romeo, only to find out he’s not who she thought he was. In other instances they’ve run away from home and are suffering from a combination of emotional trauma, mental illness and substance abuse.

Somers said the relationships between staff and youth develop slowly. What starts out small, helping a kid get ID for instance, sometimes can open doors to conversations about reuniting with a parent. Always, the focus is on a strength-based approach that involves starting the dialogue with teens from where they are strongest in their own personal experiences and talents.

“A former client came to me recently and asked how she could start her own residential program to service teenagers,” Somers said. “It’s her career goal.”

Project Lighthouse is located at 1102 Truman Avenue and is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment.


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