SEBRING — For Kevin J. Roberts, the image of Helen remains implanted in his mind, although its been 20 years since he saw the victim of domestic abuse. He has no idea where the short vulnerable woman is now.
Roberts, who would later become the chief executive officer of the Champion for Children Foundation of Highlands County, met Helen when he was spending time with a Highlands County deputy. He accompanied the deputy into the Sheriff’s Office and saw Helen for the first and only time. She had blood on her, he recalled.
Plans were to take Helen to a facility for battered women in Polk County. Helen questioned why she and her child had to be sent to Lakeland when Highlands County could have such a facility.
“She was right,” Roberts said. “Why does a town our size that cares about its people not have a safehouse?”
The idea of such a safehouse was part of a larger vision that Roberts formed 20 years ago. He envisioned a foundation that would provide a variety of services to families and children.
And in 1994, Roberts, with the help of others, began the Champion for Children Foundation of Highlands County that has helped thousands of children in the succeeding years. It did so primarily without taxpayer funds; instead it sought donations and grants.
“We’ve had to sell our story every day to potential donors,” he said. “We’re only as good as the people are charitable. People love us because we’re not using taxpayer dollars.”
Nancy Hensley, who has been chairman of the foundation’s board of directors for 20 years, said being involved with programs that have helped children has brought “a sense of self-satisfaction.” She said she was a teacher before that.
On June 5, Roberts and others with the foundation will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the foundation and recognize many who supported the foundation over the years.
Programs initiated by the foundation include the Kinsley L. Cox Living Memorial. That program helps families who have children who need a lot of costly medical services. It’s named after Kinsley L. Cox, a 5-year-old with heart problems, who experienced many medical treatments and surgeries. Ultimately, she died.
Another program is an emergency assistance fund that on a short-term basis helps families that face unexpected problems.
Vision Quest, another program, provides vision screenings for children to help detect eye problems as soon as possible after they are born.
Roberts said that every year all children in kindergarten and first and third grades are screened. If follow-up care is needed, the foundation can help, depending on need, he added.
Among the latest additions to the programs is one that helps children with autism and the purchase of and the renovation of the Circle Theatre, which has an arts program for children.
One of the earliest programs was Family Safehouse. Roberts said the foundation renovated a house that was in very poor condition for the shelter. Eventually, they also had a transition center at another house that was renovated. But, when it was discovered a few years later that the second wasn’t being used very much, it was converted into offices for the foundation.
The safehouse’s location is a well-guarded secret. It’s operated by the Peace River Foundation, although the foundation continues to provide funding. Sheryl Schwab is the director of the safehouse program.
Betty, who lived for more than two months at the safehouse and now works at a child day care facility, said it wasn’t the safehouse facility itself that primarily helped her, but the employees who went above and beyond in helping her to move forward. A program in Broward County also helped her, she said.
She was in an abusive marriage for more than six years with a husband she knew since he was a child. During that time, she said, her husband abused her verbally, mentally and physically, she said.
“I was constantly accused of things I didn’t do,” she said, adding that, “He broke me down.”
Betty said that the mental abuse affected her over a longer period of time than the physical abuse.
“The bruises go away, but it takes a long time for a woman to regain her self-esteem,” she said.
And the cycle of abuse continues, she said. “Boys grow up thinking its OK to treat women like that.”
Now that she’s away from the situation, she said, that benefits her son.
“He doesn’t hear the yelling every day,” she said. “He doesn’t see the fighting every day.”
Another program that started early in the foundation’s history was the Champion for Children Advocacy Center.
Back in the 1990s, Roberts and others noted that services that dealt with child abuse and family issues were not coordinated. Then they heard about a different setup for such services in Daytona Beach and Volusia County.
Roberts said he and others traveled there and learned about a children’s advocacy center where the services were coordinated and housed together. “We all got inspired,” Roberts said.
Eventually, they worked with the county and secured the purchase of a building that was a former convenience store. That became the Champion for Children Advocacy Center, which includes the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Special Victim’s Unit, offices for the Department of Children and Family Services and related organizations
“I’d like to think we spruced up the neighborhood,” advocacy center director Jeffrey Roth said, adding the convenience store was in disrepair.
Roth said the center not only has law enforcement services and DCF agents, but also programs to help families that are having problems.
Hart said over the years there’s “certainly been a number of cases that have bothered me. It’s amazes me what adults can do to children and think its OK.”
The center features area where suspected victims of child abuse can be interviewed.
For the Strength family, the help from the center dealt with a different problem.
Curtis Strength said his granddaughter was having problems with reading in kindergarten and first grade.
Discovering why she could not read was a challenge in itself, he said, adding that the the Advocacy Center found out that it was a dyslexia type problem. Dyslexia is a condition where a child has trouble reading letters, but it has nothing to do with intelligence.
In the granddaughter’s case, it was determined that when she looked at several separate words, the condition caused the words to appear as one word, he said.
“These people are fantastic,” he said about the advocacy center. They found ways to help his granddaughter to overcome the problem, he said.