PALMETTO, FL (WWSB) - Beth Stephenson became a foster parent just over a year ago, as the opioid crisis led the Suncoast to a top-three-highest child removal rate in Florida.
"We saw the need in the community," recalls Stephenson. "My husband and I decided we have a home with plenty of space, so we decided to open it up to the kids in the community."
For the last two years, more than 70 children on average were removed from their homes each month in Manatee, Sarasota, and DeSoto counties.
Stephenson is one of 35 locally-licensed parents through One More Child foster care, now helping raise one extra child in addition to her own.
"We get more blessing out of it than the kids in our home," she says.
Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. For years, the region has lost more foster homes than it's gained according to Florida Department of Children and Families records. Last year, the Suncoast had a net gain of 10 foster homes for the first time in recent memory.
Soon, One More Child will add a new home to that list. The group is partnering with Florida Baptist Children's Homes and Guardian Angels of SWFL to expand their campus of three foster homes in Palmetto, into a hub of foster care and other resources for the Suncoast, starting with a fourth home on the property, with a final goal of eight in the future.
"It's huge, especially these homes are great because they provide the ability for sibling groups to come in and stay together," says Stephenson.
Next door, another empty lot is the proposed site of a brand-new "compassion center," a place to store donations and provide services to the working poor in the area. One More Child has a compassion center in nearby Lakeland, which inspired Toni Azinger, wife of longtime professional golfer Paul Azinger, to spark the idea for another in Manatee County.
"I was so impressed and excited, I said 'We need that in Manatee County,'" says Toni Azinger.
One More Child believes the center could provide over 4 million meals to more than 12,000 children in its first five years.
"Being hungry when you're little, that's hard," says Paul Azinger. "You're a little kid, you don't know why you're hungry."
The center will rely on volunteers, who Stephenson hopes learn more about foster care, and maybe open their homes one day.
It will take an estimated $1 million to build the Paul and Toni Azinger Compassion Center in Palmetto. For more information on the center, or how to donate a monetary gift, you can visit the website here.
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