SEBRING — Thursday evening, child advocates, elected officials, agency representatives, businessmen and local philanthropists gathered at the Circle Theatre to celebrate the Champion for Children Foundation and two particular individuals who nurtured it into the robust organization it has become over the last 23 years.
While Nancy Hensley, board chairwoman, and Kevin Roberts, its founding CEO, were retiring after decades of service, the evening also celebrated the beginning of the Foundation’s next chapter with Carissa Marine as its new CEO May 1.
It was a night of laughter and standing ovations.
Roberts summed up the importance of the Foundation’s work saying: “Many things we need, can wait. The child cannot.”
“That is exactly why we are in business, and we and the future leadership of Champion for Children Foundation will never turn away from this focus, this priority,” he said.
Back in 1988, Highlands County was sparsely populated with few resources, yet facing serious threats to its children and working poor.
Two women — Ruth Handley, superintendent of schools, and Doris Gentry Hawthorne, a member of the Highlands County Board of County Commission, were determined to make a difference.
With 105 teenage pregnancies that year and only 67 percent of all children inoculated against disease, “we knew we needed to do something,” Hawthorne said recently.
“And we knew it had to be a powerful force,” added Handley, “a citizen’s effort,” because finding funding for initiatives would be difficult.
The state legislature had passed statutes making it possible for counties to create Children’s Services Councils.
They were designed to bring representatives of the various agencies and organizations — from the school district to the sheriff’s office, from state agencies to local charities — together on a regular basis to identify problems and create initiatives to deal with the problems.
Councils could be created as taxing districts, but Handley and Hawthorne knew that would never be approved by the County Commission or the electorate.
The only other option was to create a nonprofit corporation that would raise funds through grants and donations to fund the initiatives created by the services council, or brought to the council by independent groups.
That would take three years to create.
In 1990, with Hawthorne’s prodding, the County Commission formed a Citizen’s Task Force on Children, comprised of some 100 individuals. This led in 1991 to the creation of a Children’s Services Council under the Commission’s umbrella, which selected members and had them write a mission statement and bylaws.
“It was a miracle it took off, really,” Handley said.
“There was such a need, so many people responded with donations of land, money and time,” Hawthorne said.
“We pieced it together like poor people do. We didn’t have dollars,” Handley said.
“Someone would give us a donation and we’d find a use for it,” Hawthorne added.
The Commission also selected Kevin Roberts to be the county’s first director of Human Services and the first executive director of the council.
It helped enormously that Roberts was a perfect fit. Originally from Kentucky, by 1991 he had been working for the Department of Children and Families in Highlands County for 18 years — six as a social worker, 12 in management.
“He did a great job of identifying initiatives,” Handley said.
In fact, Roberts — who is famous for his gift of gab and ability to bring people together — was tireless in finding solutions to problems.
Within a year, the council had launched a program to help expectant teenage mothers and subscribed to the national I Care Hotline to assist young people in crisis.
In 1993 the funding arm, The Champion for Children Foundation, was created, with Roberts serving as its first CEO, and Hensley as its first chairwoman of the board.
From opening a safe house for battered woman and their children, to the Eye Check Program screening up to 800 children (ages 1-8) every year, to beginning Heart of Florida Legal Aid Services in Highlands County, the council and Foundation have made the county a safer, healthier and more promising place for children to live.
Three programs are particularly remarkable: The Champion for Children’s Advocacy Center, the Avon Park Youth Academy, and the Circle Theatre on Sebring’s Historic Circle.
The advocacy center is one of only seven in the state. It’s a one-stop site where children thought to be abused can find the protection and support they need. Built on the site of a dilapidated, abandoned convenience store, it’s now an example that other communities have come and studied before creating their own.
The APYA is the result of government cooperation at all levels — located as it is on an abandoned federal military base in Polk County with access only through Highlands.
The boarding school, managed by a private company, provides young men in serious trouble with the law a last chance to get an education and turn their lives around.
Most recently, Roberts brought the Circle Theatre back to life, where children are introduced to the performing arts. Shortly, the theater will also house a Family Resource Center for health and human service agencies in the community.
Hensley explained Roberts’ success this way, “He likes to talk and he likes to be in charge of all the details — until your eyes glaze over and you start to play with your phone under the table where he can’t see you.
“These are two characteristics that have served him well. He builds alliances and he builds networks. He invested himself in people,” and makes things happen.
Roberts described Hensley’s contributions as invaluable. “She leads with dignity and grace, a Southern lady with beauty and charm, calm under stressful situations, an active and good listener, always ready to go to work.”
With Hensley stepping down from the Foundation’s chairmanship, Roberts will take up her gavel and continue to be involved as the chairman of the Foundation board.
But he made it clear he wasn’t about to waste any time. He was “refiring,” not retiring, he said, and also planned to take dance, piano and golf lessons.