As we reflect on the anniversary of Hurricane Michael, we continue to hear stories of heroism and generosity from the Panhandle.
We’re grateful for all the selfless hours and contributions that have gone into our recovery thus far, and we’re very mindful of the vast work that remains. We also want to pause to recognize and appreciate the hard work of some of our neighbors whose efforts sometimes go unnoticed – the network of professionals and volunteers that supports our most vulnerable children.
The suffering caused by Michael will echo for years.
While we try to rebuild what was lost, we must also stabilize the many communities in which poverty, addiction, mental illness and domestic violence all have risen since the storm.
We want to take this opportunity to shine a light on the role of children’s services workers in the wake of the storm. Like firefighters and law enforcement officers, they are often first responders. They run toward the danger.
After Michael, they located hundreds of children for whom they were responsible — without cellphones. They provided child care so parents could return to their jobs.
“This is the kind of community where we look out for each other, and as bad as the storm was, it brought out the best in people,” said Theresa Roberts of the Guardian ad Litem Program, which represents abused and neglected children in the foster care system. “The next day, when we were trying to reach our volunteers, the first thing they all asked about was the safety of the kids they represent and how they could help.”
Under normal conditions, Guardian ad Litem collaborates with the Department of Children and Families and Big Bend Community Based Care, and this work continued after the storm. At the same time, the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida, which connects children and families to community resources and affordable child care, had to scramble to keep its network operational.
“We lost contracted child care providers, which was a challenge,” said the ELC’s Lindsay Holmes. “We still had to ensure children were in safe learning environments so their moms and dads could go back to work.”
Meanwhile, their offices were damaged. They lost staff and volunteers. Foster parents lost their homes and had to fight to keep their licenses due to living in FEMA trailers. Child care providers lost their businesses. Often, workers’ families faced the storm’s aftermath without them. As you might guess, they soldiered on, focusing on the children.
So this Saturday, a group of organizations that serve children will hold an appreciation event for their staff and volunteers, who will be publicly thanked Nov. 16 in Lynn Haven.
The organizations include the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, Big Bend Community Based Care, Prevent Child Abuse Florida, the Guardian ad Litem Program and the Early Learning Coalition of Northwest Florida.
We have long supported these groups in their efforts to strengthen children and families in Panhandle communities — many of which already faced poverty, food insecurity and lack of services before Hurricane Michael. Now we urge everyone to consider the long road back for our vulnerable neighbors and the nonprofits who serve them. Please consider how you can help.
And please thank our children’s services first responders for a job well done.
Allan Bense served as Speaker of the Florida House from 2004-2006. Democratic state Sen. Bill Montford represents Senate District 3 and serves as Minority Leader Pro Tempore.