Thousands of teens enter the foster care system in Florida each year as victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment, or because they have run away or had run-ins with the law. Because of their age and history, their odds of being fostered or adopted are slim. The health of most teens is compromised due to the trauma and abuse they’ve suffered. A good majority resort to crime that results in arrest or incarceration, and more than half will become homeless within 18 months of leaving the system, becoming targets for sex trafficking and gang recruitment.
However, Big Children’s Foundation (BCF) is on a mission to change the trajectory for these teens and set them on a path to success by restoring their health, training them to be self-sufficient, and providing the skills, education and professional development they need to succeed. Together with their community partners, they’ve begun work on an Education Center, scheduled to open in the fall of 2024 where they can consistently provide these youth with the love, healing, education and direction they desperately need to live happy, self-sufficient and successful lives. They are currently raising funds to complete the project and will host their annual Big Cardio 5K and Fitness Event on March 2nd at Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, bringing together corporate, church and school teams to compete for the cause.
When Joyce Lello Feldman, founder and CEO of BiG Children’s Foundation, first learned about the challenges of children in foster care during a church service more than 20 years ago, she was moved and wept deeply with compassion. Today, she is a passionate advocate for at-risk youth. “I’ve always had a heart for teaching and mentoring youth. Going back to the early ‘90’s, when I had a boutique advertising and graphic design studio, I developed a co-op program with a high school on Miami Beach where some of the students would work with us a few hours a week to get exposure and experience in the advertising and marketing biz. So several years later when I got involved with foster care, naturally I gravitated to the older kids and young adults.”
When Joyce founded Big Children’s Foundation in 2015 and was mentoring teens who had aged out of the foster system, she began to learn how their health had suffered from repeated exposure to trauma. “As we began to learn of their poor health, we knew we had to address it in order to improve their quality of life and create a solid foundation to build on. The sad truth is if you’re racked with anxiety and depression so deep you can’t get out of bed, you’re not thinking about writing a resume or getting a job. You’re just trying to survive and get through the day.
”It became apparent that we needed to start working with the youth early on, before they aged out, while we had time on our side, and the programming had to be intensive. So we developed a program for teens aged 14-17 that would restore the health of their mind, body and spirit, train them to be self-sufficient, and provide the education and professional development they’ll need to succeed. With the coming of the Education Center, we’ll be offering an accredited online alternative to those who are behind and need credit recovery, tutoring, or enrichment to achieve their high school degree or G.E.D.”
Larry Rein, president and CEO of ChildNet, the community-based care lead agency operating the foster care system in Broward and Palm Beach counties, said, “We’ve done an unbelievably good job in South Florida of serving abused and abandoned kids in foster care.” However, he asserts, “What we don’t do so great is meeting the needs effectively of the more challenging kids and the teenagers that we serve. That continues to be, in my mind, our biggest challenge and a place we need to improve, and what really needs to improve is their educational skills. These kids often have not had good experiences in school; either they move around, or they don’t attend, and it becomes a place they really don’t want to go to. So we need concerned and caring individuals who can come in and help develop those skills, so they can be successful in school and be successful in life. And that’s what BiG Children’s Foundation is doing with their Education Center. I think it’s a perfect fit for exactly what we need.”
Understanding these challenges, it’s no surprise that very few foster teens continue their education by attending post-secondary school or college. The vision of Big Children’s Foundation is to prevent these negative outcomes and provide an opportunity for foster teens to enjoy a radically reshaped future.
Kristin Stablein, executive director of Avidity, an organization that provides group care for teenagers in Broward County, said they got involved with Big Children’s Foundation during the pandemic. Avidity serves the more difficult kids in foster care who often exhibit what she calls pain-based behaviors… “A lot of our kids are not only in the dependency system; they also have engagement with the juvenile justice system… There aren’t many organizations that hang in there when it comes to dealing with these difficult behaviors, and in our shelter program at SafePlace, Big Children’s has shown they are going to hang in there. They continue to come back, and that really is when you have success with difficult kids and teenagers.”
Joyce understands that foster teens need healing, laughter and love. They long for the kind of stability that comes from having solid relationships and experiencing the love of God.
One teen boy, “Kenny” described his experience living in a foster shelter. “You have to sleep in rooms with other people you don’t know and feel afraid some nights because you don’t know what people are going to do.” However, he said Big Children’s Foundation “made the kids feel like they’re actually loved… and made me think at least I have this one person who cares about me and is actually looking after me. All the staff are like moms and will bring a good future for the kids that come in.”
ScounDrel Oliver, Director of Child Welfare for Lutheran Services Florida, Lippman Youth Shelter, said she is “extremely appreciative of Miss Joyce and Big Children’s Foundation… When they come to the shelter, for their weekly academic programs and activities, or their fitness camp over the summer, the kids enjoy themselves …and we see the benefits every time.”
Based on research, Big Children’s Foundation has developed a four-pronged program called iMfit2SUCCEED that is designed to be taught as one cohesive curriculum over the course of a year. A results-based journey, it focuses on whole health and wellness, independence preparation, education, and professional development for foster teens ages 14 to 17.
- iMhealthy emphasizes whole health and wellness, including nutrition, culinary skills, physical fitness, weight management, mind, body, spirit connection, confidence building, anger management, healthy relationships, personal hygiene, sex ed, disease prevention and more.
- iMfree fosters emotional healing through expressive arts, encompassing dance, drama, voice, music, creative arts such as writing, design, crafts and pottery, small-group time, counseling, trauma-informed mentoring, motivational workshops, mindfulness, moral conscience, spiritual guidance and bible study.
- iMequipped teaches self-sufficiency and independence through life skills training and household management, budgeting, personal tax preparation, car ownership, resume writing, professional presentations, conflict resolution and more.
- iMready! provides education, trade skills and professional development needed for success through academic education, credit recovery, tutoring, hands-on experience working with community partners, how to be responsible, critical thinking and problem solving, leadership development, gratitude and service.
Moved by what Big Children’s Foundation was doing, David Lhota, a Big Children’s Foundation Board Member and intellectual property attorney with Lhota & Associates, P.A., got involved with the Big Children’s Foundation program at SafePlace, and said he realized, “These are good kids that just need love and attention. Initially they are very guarded, but with a little love and attention, it is amazing to see them come out of their shells, engage in activities, share and laugh. It’s priceless. Having the Education Youth Center where these kids can come daily to relax, play, do homework and learn life skills (a place they can rely on) will do wonders to fast track their development in a safe environment and would be a dream come true. I have been with BCF from the beginning, and I have seen kids go from shy, untrusting and scared children to confident, successful young adolescents, taking on leadership roles and graduating.”
The Education Center
Big Children’s is already making an impact with their “Orbit” outreach program where they partner with churches, schools and companies to lead small groups in the shelters and group homes. And with a permanent space to meet, the results can only multiply. With this dedicated Education Center in Oakland Park, Big Children’s Foundation anticipates reaching more than 100 teens annually, and providing over 10,000 units of service. Their plans for the building include distinct spaces for a Health and Nature Garden, Artspace and Learning Lounge, Multi-Purpose Education Space and Kitchen, and support spaces that include staff offices and two ADA compliant restrooms.
Health and Nature Garden
The Education Center will incorporate an outdoor Health and Nature Garden, designed to provide a space for physical fitness, quiet time, prayer and meditation and immersion in a natural environment. Located behind a privacy wall, this peaceful nature garden will be a perfect place for teens to get some fresh air as they workout, stretch or have a quiet place to talk with their mentor, meditate, or pray. It will foster their ability to release their past and find their peace.
Artspace and Learning Lounge
An Artspace and Learning Lounge will encourage forms of creative expression such as singing, acting, playing instruments, writing poems or performing spoken word, all of which are effective outlets to express emotions. Developed with a therapeutic design that incorporates a calming color scheme, this space will also be beneficial for small group mentoring and counseling. It will be equipped with a dry erase board and a large format LED computer screen, making it an ideal area for trainings and workshops as well as a fun space for social activities, board games, movies and popcorn. All of these activities will help heal their pain and experience simple joys in the present.
Multi-Purpose Education Space
A contemporary workspace that blends the look of a modern kitchen with the resources of a computer lab, the Multi-Purpose Education Space will be equipped with a large moveable screen and incorporate 14 student stations, complete with a power source, internet access, a laptop, school supplies, cookware, utensils and more. This versatile space can be used for teaching self-sufficiency skills, such as cooking healthy snacks and meals, household management and budgeting, academic education, trade and professional skills development or as a place for guest speakers and professionals to conduct workshops and hands-on training. It will be a space for reshaping their futures and launching their careers.
Carolina Wiebe PA, owner of Create-Dwell Architecture LLC and a Big Children’s Foundation Board Member, has been involved with the development of the Education Center since the fall of 2019, offering her architectural design services pro-bono and navigating the rezoning process for the property during COVID via ZOOM. “Thankfully the community had a voice in this process and welcomed the rezoning from residential to a community facility as a positive consideration for the community,” said Wiebe.
As a BCF volunteer at Safe Place, Wiebe said she began to understand the importance of consistency in foster teens’ lives. “Some hide behind a hard countenance, and their hearts slowly soften as I show up consistently every week. Building trust takes time.” That’s why she’s convinced “this location and its programming will serve as one of the very few stable constants in the lives of foster teens who are typically moved from one home to another. Foster teens will clearly identify the center and staff as an organization they can access to help them succeed in life as they age out of the foster care system and our communities will benefit as BCF stands in the gap to connect high risk youth with their productive futures.”
Danny Perez, owner of ArtCraft Cabinet & Design and a Big Children’s Foundation Board member, pointed out the impact of these collective efforts. “Together we can make a lasting difference in the lives of vulnerable teens, creating a ripple effect of positive change in our community… My parents are immigrants from Cuba. They are who they are and were able to get where they are because somebody responded to them. And I’m where I am because someone responded to them. There is a chain. There is a cycle. So you can be part of breaking that chain or starting a new cycle in someone’s life.
“I think this education center is going to be fantastic for teens because it going to give them an opportunity to grow, to empower them and give them the skills they need to be productive in the community and the courage to be who they were born to be.”
ArtCraft is building-out custom cabinetry for the Education Center pro-bono as well, and Perez said he hopes this is the beginning of a long-term relationship.
Gregg Wallick, president and CEO of Best Roofing has supported Big Children’s Foundation since its inception in 2015. He kicked off the Center’s extensive renovation project this past December by fully donating and installing a brand-new roof on the facility. He said, “I know as a father how hard it can be for young adults to get on the right track even when they have a family support system… Imagine being in the foster care environment when you age out of the system and you have to go out on your own – no family, no safety net, no guidance. You’re all alone. I believe this Education Center will give these young adults a chance to learn the necessary life skills [and education] and be part of a network of individuals that care. These young adults are the future of our community, so I encourage you just step up and do whatever you can.”
Joyce said she is grateful for the many professionals that have contributed to their cause. A1 Pavers and Concrete USA is donating the construction of the cement slab, porch, walkways and all the labor, Allied Kitchen & Bath is donating appliances and fixtures, and the entire team of engineers including civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers have donated their time, service and plans throughout the process.
As a Founding Board Member of BiG Children’s Foundation, Pamela J. Rossi, G.G., Owner and Jewelry Designer at PJ Rossi Jewelers, has helped raise crucial funds to renovate the Education Center with a heart for the youth they serve. “These at-risk kids need a break, and they need our help,” she said. “Life so far for them has been very rough, and in some cases, extreme and dire circumstances. It is up to us, their community, to give them support and the tools to teach them how to be happy and productive citizens. This Education Center is going to accomplish just that.”
Big Cardio 5K, Prayer Walk, Fitness, and Sports Fundraiser
Rossi has helped raise funds for at-risk youth annually since 2008 through BiG Children’s signature event, BiG Cardio, coming up on Saturday, March 2nd at Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill. “The event is super fun, the whole family can participate, no matter your age or fitness level,” said Rossi. “I’ve built the team ‘PJ ROSSI GEMS’ and for us, the opportunity to help the at-risk youth and the fun team camaraderie keeps us coming back year-after-year!”
Now in its 16th year, Big Cardio features a 5K run, 3.1 walk, 1-mile prayer walk, fitness classes, an obstacle course, yoga, stretch, pickleball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, kid’s soccer, a fun zone with interactive activities, vendor booths, Dunkin’ Coffee, Bad Boys Bar B-Q and more. One of the newest additions is the Renegade Games, where teams relay race through an obstacle course and compete for the best time. Managers, ministry leaders, HR directors and coaches are encouraged to enter their teams in the obstacle course competition for a team trophy and prizes. And all proceeds from the event will benefit at-risk youth through Big Children’s Foundation.
Jackie Maestri, VP of Global Services & Enterprise for Johnson & Johnson and a Big Children’s Foundation Board Member, participates in Big Cardio annually as a corporation. “Last year there were 54 people from J&J family and friends participating in Big Cardio. They were all tremendously moved and really want to make a difference,” said Maestri, adding “Johnson and Johnson is committed to giving back to the community and contributes a two to one match, up to $20,000 per U.S. employee. They are especially akin to anything around health and better life, and two of the components to success for Big Children’s Foundation are physical and emotional health, so it’s very in tune to that…. My children have enjoyed many blessings and if I can help others, I definitely want to do that.”
There are several ways you can support Big Children’s Foundation and help at-risk teens:
- Sign up individually for Big Cardio, or form a team with your company, church, school or group, and come to the event on Saturday, March 2, 2024. bigcardio.org
- Volunteer to be a small group mentor.
- Schedule a tour of the Education Center site to learn more.
- Plan a service project with your company, church, or school.
- Provide in-kind donations. Current needs include plumbing, electrical, HVAC, and more.
- Donate at bigcf.org, or bigcardio.org
- Visit bigcf.org to learn more about Big Children’s Foundation and the Education Center opening in the Fall 2024.
- Call 954-933-3129
- Email [email protected]