EAST OF PUNTA GORDA — John Davidson is confident that he can provide 24 runaway foster-care kids with the best Christmas present yet in their young, troubled lives.
It will be a stable, caring, structured home and school for the next four or five years, plus a solid plan for their post-teen futures.
“It won’t be just a place where they live,” Davidson said Monday. “It will be their home.”
Davidson is executive director of AMIKids Crossroads, which is being restructured for a new mission after a roller-coaster ride this spring when the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice announced it was not renewing the contract of the program for court-ordered placement of juvenile offenders.
After months of community and political protests, the facility is being reopened by the Florida Department of Children and Families. Working with the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, Crossroads will offer a permanent home and school environment for 24 boys ages 12 to 17 who have been running away from foster homes for most of their young lives.
“I’m excited,” Davidson said as he led a media tour through the camp’s refurbished buildings while workers were busy reconstructing former barracks and a storage facility into bedrooms and a lounge for the incoming kids.
While the state has yet to inspect the retooled facility and issue a license, a ribbon-cutting grand opening is set for Dec. 1, and Davidson said he’s optimistic that the boys will be in place by Christmas.
“These boys have run away from foster homes as many as 20 times. Many are coming from 21-day runaway shelters. They’re jaded. Nobody wants them. But we do,” he said.
Explaining that some 50 to 60 percent of the boys are expected to spend up to five years at Crossroads, unlike the previous juveniles who spent basically a few months to a year, Davidson smiled broadly and said that “it will be more like raising a relative and seeing these kids for a lifetime.”
The home and school experiment will not only be a new venture for Crossroads but for the state as well, Davidson said, with “all eyes focused on us in the state right now.”
He said the cafeteria won’t be a cafeteria anymore. It will be a “home kitchen,” with tables and chairs instead of benches. The former open barracks are being renovated into separate bedrooms, with a sitting room for visitors. A former storage building will be converted into a “gold card room,” where boys who have earned “points” for behavior, participation and leadership can play pool or Ping-Pong, watch TV, or just relax on plush sofas.
The renovation is costing about $150,000, Davidson said, most of which was raised by the Crossroads board through donations.
The boys will not only study academic subjects, but will learn crafts like art, pottery and carpentry, and will take diving certification classes, taught by Davidson, who is a retired Navy dive instructor.
Area churches, he said, have been “tremendous” in their support of the facility, including First Presbyterian, First Baptist and First United Methodist in Punta Gorda, (where, at the latter, women are making individual quilts for the boys’ beds) as well as the nearby Community Church or Paradise Park.
“We are blessed with the amount of community support we are getting,” he said, “but we always welcome more.”