When abused, abandoned or neglected children must be removed from their homes, 4KIDS of South Florida welcomes them to SafePlace, a temporary shelter where they are lovingly cared for while arrangements are made for appropriate placement in foster homes. Because this is an often scary and confusing time for children, SafePlace desires to provide a warm retreat from the storm. However, a necessary relocation of their facilities recently left SafePlace without an outside area for children to play and run off the stress of their situation, until two churches stepped in to help build them a playground.
“It’s about the church fulfilling the call to love the widow and orphan,” said Brian Brookins, pastor at Riverside Church, North Lauderdale. After visiting the new location, he was moved by the fact that there was only a paved lot behind a warehouse for the children to go and asked the church to pitch in to build a playground. Their relatively small church raised $30,000 for the project and was encouraged to discover that First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale picked up the mantle as well to raise an additional $50,000 for the cause. “This is a story of church unity here in Broward,” said Brookins, adding “God is doing something unique and it’s pretty exciting.”
John Jones, executive pastor at First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, said the project is being taken on as part of their church’s Mercy Month in November when they will be focusing attention on a different strategic partner of the church each week. “The whole ministry of 4KIDS is ostensibly biblical,” he said. “We are just in awe of how they have changed the social landscape by providing this safety net for children, and we want to be a part of it.” He said they will be encouraging their congregants to volunteer at whatever level they can.
The need is great
Tom Lukasik, vice president of community engagement at 4KIDS, explained, “We have more kids coming into care than ever before. In the past two years we’ve seen a 50 percent increase over the year before.” The greatest need is for foster families who are willing to provide a safe home for these children. On some days SafePlace may have 15 to 20 kids of all ages at one time awaiting placement. Trained, qualified and screened 4KIDS staff members and volunteers provide encouragement, guidance and every amenity available to help the child learn to trust and laugh again. This may include a warm meal, a fresh change of clothes, hygiene items and a comfortable bed while they await a foster home. One of the only programs of its kind in the state of Florida, SafePlace 4KIDS welcomes children, newborn to 17 years of age, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Since they were unable to take their old playground equipment with them in the move, Lukasik explained that “right now it’s ugly, so this playground will help a lot.”
Sailing away through play
As these kids in crisis are pulled from their homes in an instant due to no fault of their own and are afraid and uncertain about their futures, Lukasik said “it becomes like cabin fever and for them to be able to go out and shoot some hoops or burn energy, it’s vital for them to deal with what they’re going through.”
Designed in collaboration with TBG Partners, the playground will give the children of SafePlace and 4KIDS a place to wind down and just be kids. Because play is an integral part of childhood, providing a place for them to play when they are not able to be in their homes is valuable.
And this particular playground is designed for children of all ages to use their imaginations to “come sail away.” It’s not just something to climb on; the playground will have a tropical feel to it visually with large graphics on the walls to simulate the beach and a pirate ship for interactive play.
Paul Weinberg, an architect who attends First Baptist Church Fort Lauderdale, designed the playground to include components that help meet the emotional needs of these kids with designated space for kids from ages 4 to 16 and components designed for therapeutic play.
“It will be a place where they can recalibrate their emotions with safety in mind and clear lines of sight for our staff to supervise. There will be plenty of shade and a water play area,” said Blake Silverstrom, 4KIDS vice president of partner engagement, adding that, “SafePlace is really triage. It’s our short window of time to connect with a child who pulled up in a police car and is placed with strangers. So, how do we quickly assess how to communicate with that child and gain their trust? It requires a lot of options. The playground will be an escape for them.”
And it can be “a tough battle ground for us,” admits Silverstrom. “Some of these kids are so broken and sometimes we’re dealing with 15 to 20 kids at a time, so just being outside has some therapeutic value. We see this as more of a holistic approach to trauma.”
While funding for the project is well underway, Silverstrom said there is still a shortfall for the project that is expected to cost $125,000. To learn more about 4KIDS and how you can help a kid in crisis or to donate, visit 4kidsofsfl.org or call 954-979-7911. In-kind donations are also welcome.