Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and single mother Wendy Warner had been sitting at a Girl Scout meeting discussing job opportunities when she learned about Florida Mentors. Having served as a nurse in Desert Storm and Desert Shield as well as the Balkan war, Warner was looking for a job that utilized her nursing skills as well as allowed her the flexibility to spend time with her daughter.
What she found was Florida Mentors — and a cause she believes strongly in.
"I really believe that the Mentor program is here to really try and place people in not just a home, but the right home," she said. "It's a part of meeting their needs so every client can be happy."
Florida Mentors fills a very specific need in the South Lee County area, said Tracy Taylor, Mentor program manager. Working with the state government, Mentor provides foster care for children with severe emotional and behavioral challenges as well as adults and children with developmental disabilities.
Warner, a Fort Myers resident working as a contract nurse for the program, said the people she sees take on the obligations, commitments and struggles of caring for these specialized individuals all display similar characteristics. Spiritually strong, infinitely patient and able to guide their charges to the right decisions and best choices, Warner calls the Mentors special.
"These are genuinely special people," she said. "They should be called angels."
Management at Florida Mentors of Fort Myers agrees, and so did Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1988 when he introduced a resolution proclaiming May as National Foster Care Month to honor and recognize the contributions of foster parents. By 2004 over 41 states participated in the celebration of a system that serves more than 518,000 children and youth. The number dipped slightly to 29 in 2005, and staff at the Fort Myers office hope the slump was temporary.
Florida Mentor of Fort Myers will honors its foster care providers on Wednesday, May 10, with two awards ceremonies.
"It is going to be great fun," said Florida Mentor Recruiter Patty Vallone. "We will be giving out plaques and we just want them to know how much they are appreciated every day."
Appreciation ranks low on the list of reasons for becoming foster parents to Barbara and Peter Owen. The Owens have fostered 26 children since 2000 when they began offering their home — and their hearts — to those who needed a safe place to call home. Traveling a minimum of three times a week from their home in Port Charlotte to Fort Myers, the Owens take in only foster children from Fort Myers.
"The hardest part is when the kids leave," Barbara said. "You cry, but you have to realize that that was your job — to take them to that next point."
Foster care is often only a temporary status. Taylor explained that many times the goal, even when a child is removed from the custody of her birth parents, is to reunite them as a family. For a child who is not returned to his or her home, adoption is often the next step.
"You have to look at it as a temporary thing," said Peter, "Otherwise it would be too hard."
But that doesn't mean foster parents don't become attached, said Jones. She said the advice to not become to close to a foster child is one that is seldom realistic.
"There is always going to be emotional closeness and it's probably always going to hurt when you have to watch that child walk away." She said the foster parents know in advance that separation will come sooner or later.
"If that is not something they think they can cope with," said Taylor, "then they might should look at the other end, at adoption.
"We did want to adopt, but we realized if we did we couldn't help any other kids," said Barbara. "You have to stop and look and say 'if we adopt a kid, then we stop with that child — or we could help other kids get to be adopted.' It's just finding the best way we could help."
The past six years as foster parents are rich with memories, said the Owens, but it would be impossible to pick out one memory to stand above the others as a "best."
"Every child has their own memories, some good, some bad," said Peter.
"It's a lot of hard work and involves a lot of paperwork," added Barbara, "There is a lot to consider that goes beyond what you to raise your own kid."
The Owens say patience is the key characteristic, combined with an easy-going attitude.
"It's not for everyone," he said. "You have to be patient and you have to give a lot of TLC. Give them a pat on the shoulder instead of a kick in the butt."
Florida Mentors of Fort Myers works with more than 50 foster families caring for 55 clients, both foster children and developmentally disabled individuals. The award ceremony and celebration will be held on May 10 at 8270 College Parkway, Suite 203 in the Fountain Court complex. The first celebration will run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the second will start at 5 p.m. and last till 7 p.m. For more information on the Florida Mentors program, call 466-200 or visit www.thementorsnetwork.com.