As we enter year two of the COVID-era, troubling trends have emerged among our children as a result of the necessary precautions required to protect them from infection: They are spending more time indoors in front of screens and eating snacks, and spending less time playing outdoors and engaging in physical activities.
That’s why Adopt-A-Family’s Project Grow after-school program has prioritized physical fitness and mental wellness as a critical component of its curriculum.
“It’s really important that the kids in Project Grow have regular opportunities to move their bodies and feel the joy that comes with that movement,” said Daron Morse, AAF’s Director of Youth Educational Programs. “Kids need to move to be healthy and to feel happy.”
In addition to hosting exercise and nutrition classes through FLIPANY, Project Grow has implemented physical education sessions for the kids. The program recently partnered with Girls on the Run – an initiative that empowers young girls to develop a connection between physical and emotional health.
The Importance of Exercise in the Age of COVID
Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have prevented many children from playing sports or even walking the halls at school, notes this Stanford Medicine report. For so many kids, the school day begins with them rolling out of bed and sitting up in front of a laptop for class, remaining stationary for hours on end. Even children who attend school in person have had their P.E. classes and recess time limited or eliminated.
“Overall, we’ve seen excessive weight gain during the pandemic,” said Dr. Elizabeth Shepard of Stanford Children’s Health’s Center for Healthy Weight. “For some kids, that puts them suddenly into the range of overweight or obesity and that can be quite detrimental to their health over the long term.”
Before the onset of the pandemic, exercise was important. In this COVID-19 era, it’s essential and even lifesaving.
‘If You Keep Trying It, You Will Get Better’
When Palm Beach County students were off for Spring Break, Project Grow students assembled outside on the playground turf behind Adopt-A-Family’s Lake Worth office one weekday afternoon.
They stood in front of volunteer PE instructor Wayne Garber, who led them through a battery of exercises, like calf raises, push-ups, and sit-ups.
As some of the students began to tire and breathe heavily, Garber, in his most pleasant tone, encouraged them, revealing why those pushups were so important.
“When you do any exercise or sport, your brain has to learn the most efficient way to talk to your muscles, so these pushups will help you develop a pathway,” he said. “If you keep trying it, you will get better.”
Girls on the Run, More than a Race
A few days later, volunteer instructor Ann Olberding led the very first Girls on the Run session with a group of 3rd-5th grade girls. Olberding’s Delray Beach Division 6 Tennis Team generously donated running shoes, shorts, socks, and water bottles – everything they need to train for a 5k race, which concludes the program.
Olberding’s mid-morning class began with journaling activities and concluded outdoors, where they stretched and started doing exercises.
“Right now, we’re going to get our hearts pumping and we’re going to get moving, so the first thing we’re going to do is jumping jacks.”
The half-circle of girls that formed around Olberding followed her fluid and easy movements, as she led them from jumping jacks to arm raises, lunges, and jumps. They ended that first session with laps around the playground, sprinting past their instructor and giggling with delight only to tire themselves out a short time later.
“We did three great laps, next week we’re going to do four,” Olberding said. “This is not about the race; this is all about endurance.”
And it’s also about providing students the right environment to implement physical fitness into their daily lives.
“Project Grow is the perfect space for supportive development in physical fitness, health, and wellness,” said Morse, “The kids feel comfortable in Project Grow so they are willing to try a physical activity they may otherwise decline.”
Elliott Erwitt once said this about photography’s purpose: “It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
On a Sunday in January, Bryson Moberley spent the afternoon snapping photos of Adopt-A-Family buildings and spaces, either endowing his shots with vibrant color or allowing natural light to do the work.
Bryson’s photos exemplify Erwitt’s famous quote. Have a look!
Adopt-A-Family’s 36th Annual Virtual Tree Lighting Celebration was unlike any in the event’s three-and-a-half-decade history. Even though our participants traded a night out (in formal attire, with music and fine dining) for a night in (in comfy clothes, with a livestream auction), our biggest fundraiser of the year ended up being a triumph!
While the ongoing pandemic made having an online event a necessity, we did include some beloved traditions. Our Project Grow kids performed a holiday song; clients shared stories of resilience and hope; CEO Matt Constantine spoke about the agency’s work and mission, and the always-engaging Neil Saffer conducted the live online auction.
Here are some other cool things you might not know, even if you tuned in for the Dec. 1 event:
- Despite the major shift in the event format and the challenges of this COVID-impacted year, the Virtual Tree Lighting Celebration raised $700,000 – all thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of our faithful supporters.
- We were able to meet and exceed a $100K match opportunity presented by one of our gracious benefactors, allowing us to hit a critical benchmark in our fundraising efforts on behalf of the families we serve.
- 46 committee members contributed their time, advice, and resources in order to make this first-ever Virtual Tree Lighting Celebration a reality. We’re especially grateful to Tree Lighting co-chairs Nancy Kalaher and Beth Hennessy, their dedicated and hardworking committee members, and the production/technical teams.
- This year’s event was held in a somewhat less exclusive venue than usual – producer Robert Lentoski’s dining room.
- The online event allowed us to attract a wide viewership. The Virtual Tree Lighting Celebration drew more than 400 viewers who watched the event on our Facebook page, YouTube channel, and at our auction site.
- Speaking of viewers, they watched from around the country. In addition to friends from Florida, we welcomed viewers from Ohio, California, New Jersey, Colorado, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina.
- Going virtual was not without its complications. Ten minutes before the event, organizers were still figuring out how to get the broadcast to display properly on Adopt-A-Family’s Facebook page.
- Silent auction nugget: Restaurant gift cards from our Dine and Dash category sold out within 10 minutes of the online auction’s November 21 opening.
- This year’s big-ticket live auction item? A three-night stay at the luxurious Blackberry Farm. The winning bid was $8,000.
Most winners have picked up their items from the office. BONUS FACT: The 36th Annual Tree Lighting Celebration took 12 months of planning. But did you know that the day after our virtual event, donations were already coming in for the 2021 Tree Lighting Celebration? We really hope to see you there – in person.
By Abbey Hartman, Shelter Services Coordinator for Adopt-A-Family
The United Way of Palm Beach County performs important work in our community and supports organizations that do the same, including Adopt-A-Family. The agencies funded by the United Way form a collaborative network to serve all residents of Palm Beach County. Adopt-A-Family regularly partners with fellow United Way-funded agencies to ensure that the families we serve have access to services that will aid them on the path to stability and self-sufficiency.
Here is a snapshot of some of the incredible organizations that regularly support families served by Adopt-A-Family:
Boys and Girls Club of Palm Beach County cares for children, providing meals and child care up until 8 p.m.
Clinics Can Help gives out walkers and medical supplies at low to no cost for people who cannot afford equipment.
Community Partners offers therapy, housing, and case management to children and parents in our community.
CROS Ministries provides food assistance to low-income families through food pantries, meal sites, and gleaning.
Families First helps Adopt-A-Family secure housing opportunities for people with barriers who may need more support.
Gulfstream Goodwill provides shelter to pregnant youth until birth.
Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Palm Beach County, Inc. offers diapers, formula, and clothing to needy families.
The Palm Beach County Food Bank provides Program REACH fresh vegetables, fruit, and food for the food pantry.
The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County provides free legal services to low-income families and nonprofits.
The Lord’s Place offers job training, meals, SOAR assistance, and housing to families.
Urban League of Palm Beach County provides job coaching and placement to families.
Vita Nova helps young people with life skills training, job search/assistance, mental health services, and so much more.
211 Palm Beach is the number one referral source for homeless services.
Out of gratitude for the support of agencies and funders throughout Palm Beach County, Adopt-A-Family’s 2020 United Way Campaign was “Pay it Forward.” Adopt-A-Family’s staff certainly lived up to that credo during the campaign! One hundred percent of the staff pledged donations to the United Way of Palm Beach County, and the total pledged surpassed last year’s total. Those donations will help support United Way-funded organizations that do impactful work in our community. Adopt-A-Family is grateful to Pay It Forward now and every day! The work we all do collectively has such an impact on our families, children, and the community!
Abbey Hartman has been working in homeless services for 11 years in various roles, including housing, youth services, veteran support, and now families. This month marks her four-year anniversary with Adopt-A-Family. Abbey enjoys going to the beach, playing with her son, reading, and spending time with family.
Adopt-A-Family recently earned a distinction that few organizations in this country can lay claim to — a 14th consecutive, 4-star rating from Charity Navigator.
Adopt-A-Family earned the highest possible ranking from the reputable charity evaluator for adhering to sector best practices and executing its mission in a financially efficient manner.
“Only 1% of the charities we evaluate have received at least 14 consecutive 4-star evaluations, indicating that Adopt-A-Family outperforms most other charities in America,” wrote Charity Navigator President and CEO Michael Thatcher to Adopt-A-Family in a Sept. 1 letter. “This exceptional designation from Charity Navigator sets Adopt-A-Family apart from its peers and demonstrates to the public its trustworthiness.”
The ratings are designed to show potential donors how well a charity utilizes their support, how well it sustains its programs and services over time and the organization’s level of commitment to accountability and transparency.
Charity Navigator uses data-driven analysis to measure organizations in seven key areas of financial health. The group also scores charities by utilizing 17 different metrics to assess whether they follow the best practices of governance and ethics and if they make it easy for donors to find critical information about them.
Charity Navigator enjoys the distinction of being the country’s largest and most-utilized evaluator of its kind. It reviews ten times more charities than its nearest competitor and attracts more visitors to its site than all other charity rating groups combined.
Adopt-A-Family is honored to have received this recognition, an achievement that is only possible because of the investment and guidance of our board, supporters, donors, and partner agencies. The agency’s commitment to efficiently and effectively using every dollar is a direct reflection of the support, backing, and commitment of our community of supporters.
Covid-19 may have significantly altered life as we know it, but it could not stop Project Grow. When the pandemic caused Adopt-A-Family to go remote, it meant that Grow staff could no longer see students face-to-face. However, the staff was determined to find creative ways to consistently invest in the lives of their kids.
Throughout the spring and summer, staff members pursued alternative means to provide the crucial wraparound services their kindergarten through fifth-grade students needed. For the program’s students, who are formerly homeless and come from low-income backgrounds, delivering services that are proven, nuanced, and student-centered is of the utmost importance.
“Project Grow is working on building trust between the kids and the program and the people in it,” said Daron Morse, Director of Youth Educational Programs for Adopt-A-Family. “A consistent external support system is very helpful to them.”
Project Grow maintained contact with parents even when in-person interaction was untenable and discovered that an overwhelming majority experienced COVID-19-related job loss and food insecurity.
With summer approaching and pandemic-related summer camp closures mounting in the area, Adopt-A-Family recognized the importance of keeping the students engaged. In response, they designed a dynamic virtual summer camp.
Thanks to a generous program supporter, all 37 Project Grow families were provided with a new Chromebook so students could access online sessions.
While most virtual camps rely on prerecorded content, Project Grow upped the ante by designing a curriculum that featured live academic sessions and activities to foster student engagement.
Students took math and science classes and participated in poetry and art workshops. They also learned yoga, ballet, and computer coding. Nature and wildlife sessions were provided by the Palm Beach Zoo, Florida Fishing Academy, and Gumbo Limbo.
Through it all, staff members wore many hats. Not only did they teach academic lessons, but they also administered technical assistance to parents and offered emotional support to the children. To help families experiencing job loss, Project Grow connected parents to job resources and opportunities for temporary financial assistance.
On Fridays, Project Grow staff handed out donated gourmet meals, snacks, toys, school supplies, and encouragement to students and parents while respecting social distancing protocols.
It was on those Fridays that teachers got to see their students face-to-face, which resulted in jubilant greetings and smiles. One Friday in July, 4th and 5th grade teacher Mr. Evan greeted a student named Jonathan and gave him some snacks and his mother a box of food.
The multitude of challenges posed by the pandemic revealed Project Grow’s malleability, innovation, and attentiveness in how it serves its students.
When the Palm Beach County School Board voted to postpone the start of the school year in late July, Project Grow extended its summer camp for four more weeks to ensure student enrichment was fostered until the first day of school.
“We don’t want a gap to occur where the kids lose practice in engaging with their peers and teachers, Ms. Daron said. “That’s a big step in a kid’s development.”
Before COVID-19 changed everything, service delivery used to be a family affair. Parents and case managers met – often for an hour or more – to talk about the family’s struggles, create budgets, and implement family action plans, while the children colored or played on the floor nearby.
At Adopt-A-Family, our work has always been about those face-to-face touchpoints, where staff can look clients square in the eye and say, “I believe in you and in your ability to get through this and come out stronger. I’m here to help.”
Since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Florida, we shifted almost overnight to virtual and contactless service delivery. For every case manager in every program, that means relying on phone calls and teleconferencing platforms to stay in touch – a tough proposition in a field predicated on human interaction.
And at the same time, there are more people than ever who need our help.
The Housing Stabilization Program (HSP), which provides rent and utility assistance to families at risk of homelessness, has seen a dramatic spike in calls from people experiencing job and income loss. To meet the demand, HSP hired three additional staff members and implemented an expedited virtual intake process. From March-June 2020, the Housing Stabilization Program provided emergency rent and utility assistance to 110 families, double the caseload for the same period in 2019.
The Homeless Resource Center (HRC) team responds every day to families in crisis. In May alone, 17 families were housed with Rapid Re-Housing assistance, 16 families were placed in emergency shelter, and three were moved to permanent supportive housing. “These clients still need us. They need showers. They need clothes. We can’t stop because of the coronavirus,” said Abbey Hartman, Shelter Services Coordinator at Adopt-A-Family’s 19-unit family homeless shelter.
Fieldwork is starkly different. HRC case managers used to make 20 home visits per week, sitting at each family’s table and exploring what was going well and what wasn’t. Now, brief exchanges take place at the front door. Smiling through their masks, case managers drop off groceries, toiletries, diapers, cleaning products – anything to help the family get by.
As for the agency’s six residential programs, all remain at capacity and no one will ever be evicted because they lost their job to coronavirus and can’t pay the rent. The agency continues to provide housing and emergency shelter to over 120 families on any given night, with new safety protocols in place.
Family Advocate Vivenne Owen, who normally enjoys face-to-face interactions with her Project SAFE clients, still comes to the office at least once a week. When clients see her car in the parking lot, they pop over and visit – wearing masks, of course. Even when she’s working at home, she is available and present for her clients by phone or video. Like every Adopt-A-Family team member, she’s working hard every day to remind her clients one reassuring thing in a frightening time: “We’re still there.”
As an agency on the front lines of family homelessness, Adopt-A-Family has been working since the earliest days of the COVID-19 health crisis to respond thoughtfully, creatively, and rapidly to our community’s most pressing needs.
Thousands of parents in Palm Beach County have no safety net – jobs have been lost or hours have been cut, and there’s not enough money to pay the rent and feed their children. Any anxiety about COVID-19 is amplified by the fear of becoming homeless. And so our initial efforts have been centered around ramping up our homelessness prevention program, to keep more families in their homes where they’re safe.
The community response has been extraordinary.
Adopt-A-Family’s many supporters have shown characteristic concern and selfless generosity, and we offer our unending thanks. They have provided us with hope and inspiration as we continue to provide vital housing services to families in need. (To join our family of supporters, please click here.) This work is simply not possible without the help of donors and funding partners who care so deeply about families in crisis.
We’re still serving families. It just looks different.
· The safety of our staff and the families we serve is our number one priority.
· Our emergency family shelter is at capacity, with extra safety precautions in place.
· In every program, case management services have transitioned to remote delivery and continue uninterrupted.
· While school is out, Project Grow teachers interact with students by phone and through Google Classroom, offering academic and emotional support. We miss the kids, but they are doing well considering the circumstances.
The number of families needing help has doubled…
… and so we have prepared to double our efforts to prevent family homelessness.
· Our homeless prevention program received 426 calls for assistance in March. That’s twice the call volume from March 2019, and we know the need will grow.
· We are hearing from families who work in every sector of the job force – mechanics, restaurant workers, health aides, and small business employees.
· In one week alone, we made $19,000 in rent payments to keep 15 families current on their rent.
· Adopt-A-Family believes this: the more quickly we respond in preventing family homelessness now, the less burden we’ll see in the family homeless system later.
“Stay home” presumes you have a home.
Keeping families housed is now a public health imperative.
“Through the ups and downs, Adopt-A-Family was my anchor in the storm.”
Karla Thompson has weathered the many storms in her life with grace, determination, and gratitude. She was born in the Bahamas as the sixth of eleven children. Due to the limited educational system in her country, Karla left home when she was just 12 years old to take an opportunity to attend school in Miami. She finished school, started a job, got married, and had two sons. Several years later her marriage ended, and she found herself raising two growing boys on her own. Living humbly, she maintained steady employment and the same apartment for over ten years as her sons grew. She proudly watched her eldest son graduate from high school and join the Navy.
Karla’s rent became a burden when her landlord raised the rent, and she began to fall behind. She moved out and began to apply for new apartments, only to discover that her landlord had evicted her through the court system, severely damaging her credit and her chances at securing a stable place to live. As Karla’s security slipped away, she tragically lost two brothers within the same year and she carried the entire financial burden of their funeral and burial expenses on her shoulders. Drowning in grief, with her finances depleted and no housing solution on the horizon, Karla and her 9-year old son were forced to split up and live with different family members because no one had room to house them both. Karla did her best to stay afloat as she called all around Palm Beach County seeking assistance, but she was beginning to lose hope.
The clouds above Karla and her son lifted the day they received a call back from Adopt-A-Family. Although timid because they were unsure of who to trust after losing everything, Karla and her son met with the program manager of Service Enriched Housing and were accepted into the program. Service Enriched Housing is an affordable housing program for employed households dedicated to the pursuit of financial stability and home-ownership.
After nearly a year of living apart, Karla and her son were finally reunited. Looking back, Karla shares “I can truly say that through the storm, Adopt-A-Family was my shelter, mentally and physically. For the first time, after losing what we had lost, we felt like we had hope. We had a place to call home. Adopt-A-Family made sure we were secure and provided us with the love and support we had been lacking.”
While in Service Enriched Housing, Karla slowly started to regain stability. She maintained her job, paid her rent on time, saved money in her escrow account, and slowly but surely improved her credit. Although Karla and her son were just getting back on their feet, she opened her home to a nephew from the islands who needed a stable home and a chance to finish high school. He joined the Army after graduation and is now living on his own in Texas after serving our country.
A few years later, Karla welcomed her grand-niece and great-grand baby niece from the Bahamas into her home to give them a chance at a better life. Karla’s niece is now in college and her great grandniece is a joy to everyone she meets. “Even though I needed so much help myself, somehow I’ve been able to help so many people over the years. I’ve found that the more you help others, the better you feel.”
Karla’s confidence grew and she felt ready to make a career change to increase her earning potential and do work that she was passionate about. Karla has always loved children, so she earned her Childcare Certification and left her retail job of 12 years to work in a daycare. She later earned her Associates degree in Early Childhood Education and is currently pursuing her Bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education. She is currently a beloved Pre-K teacher for low-income children. Karla has her sights set on earning a Master’s degree in the future and becoming a motivational speaker for people trying to survive life’s storms. “What Adopt-A-Family did for me, I’d love to do for others. That’s why I want to become a motivational speaker. You never know who is out there that needs an encouraging word.”
Karla’s years at Adopt-A-Family were not easy. Raising teenagers, living a country away from her mother and much of her immediate family, deaths of loved ones, financial crises, lack of a vehicle, and long, hard hours of work and school threatened her efforts to move forward. Through it all, Karla kept her eyes on the horizon. She continued to be an active member of her church, a mentor to new Adopt-A-Family residents, and she took advantage of every supportive service offered by the agency. Karla participated in budget counseling, financial literacy courses, healthcare navigation, therapeutic services, and monthly case management. She says that the way she was raised helps her to look back with gratitude on everything she has experienced in her life.
“I was raised to be thankful and grateful. I was raised to see the good in people and be grateful for small things. I can honestly say I can look back on my life and smile.”
In 2018, Karla’s hard work, sacrifice, and heart of gratitude came full circle when she was accepted into Habitat for Humanity of Palm Beach County’s highly competitive home ownership program. On top of full-time employment and college classes, Karla completed hundreds of hours of community service to earn an interest-free mortgage on a new home.
In March 2019, over 100 family and friends celebrated with Karla, her sons, her nephew, her grandniece, and her great grandniece at Karla’s Habitat for Humanity Home Dedication Ceremony.
Today, Karla is getting settled into her new home, with ample space for her family and a yard for her great grandniece. Karla looks forward to sharing her story to encourage other families that are struggling and losing hope. “At one point, the storm was so severe I couldn’t see, but today I’m still standing. God has been good. Families need to know they have an anchor, a foundation to hold on to. And that’s what Adopt-A-Family was for us.”
Out of Reach 2019 Report
The National Low-Income Housing Coalition recently released its 2019 Out of Reach report which reveals startling statistics on the current state of affordable housing throughout the country. Out of Reach documents the significant and growing gap between renters’ wages and the cost of housing in every county and state in America. The report breaks down the average hourly wage a full-time worker must earn to afford a modest rental without spending more than 30% of their annual income.
The Out of Reach report states that there is not a single county or metropolitan area in Florida where an individual working a full-time, minimum wage job can afford a simple 2-bedroom apartment. On average, they would need to work 108 hours per week or have 2.7 full-time minimum wage jobs to afford a decent place to live. Coupled with the rising costs of food, childcare, and transportation, low-income families often find themselves having to make the impossible decision between paying rent and buying food or seeking medical care.
With Palm Beach County being the 3rd most expensive county in Florida and West Palm Beach-Boca Raton being the 2nd most expensive metropolitan area in Florida, drastic changes are needed to decrease the disparity between wages and housing costs. The Out of Reach report states that Fair Market Rent in Palm Beach County is $1434 per month for a 2-bedroom apartment which would require a single parent to earn $27.58 to afford and maintain stable housing.
Every day, Adopt-A-Family works to combat the affordable housing crisis in Palm Beach County and equip low-income families with the tools they need to become stable and self-sufficient in the midst of a rental landscape that is stacked against them. The agency’s efforts include:
- 51 units of housing for homeless Palm Beach County families
- 55 units of affordable rentals for low-income Palm Beach County families
- Financial assistance to prevent eviction for low-income families experiencing a crisis
- A new housing project that will provide 14 units of housing reserved for unstably housed students at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth, Florida
- Case management, financial literacy classes, credit repair services, budget counseling, first-time home buyer education, mental health services, and linkage to support services to enable families to become self-sufficient.