WORDS & PICTURES: Gabrielle Versmessen
Standing in a plot of uncleared land off Ellenton-Gillette Road in Palmetto, Bobbie and Floyd Price envisioned a community where foster kids could live with their biological siblings in a safe, Christ-centered foster home. A place where healing and growth could occur for the children and the biological families on their path to reunification. Nine years later, that vision has become beyond immeasurably more of a reality.
According to the National Children’s Bureau, approximately two-thirds of the children in the United Sates’ foster system have a sibling also in foster care and about 70% of those siblings are separated. Bobbie Price recalls: “About five or six people got together and felt led to begin a ministry to help these siblings that were in the system.” Guardian Angels was then created as a nonprofit to fulfill this need. Currently building their sixth Foster Family Home on the Guardian Angels campus, through One More Child, they are able to house large sibling groups of foster children.
Janelle Hanaburgh, Senior Director of Foster Care for One More Child, explains how Guardian Angels and One More Child partner together: “The sibling connection is the longest-lasting family connection that we have. What we’ve done with the partnership is try to preserve that sibling connection. Six hundred children in the area are in foster care with less than 200 families for them to go to. That’s another amazing resource of our Foster Family Homes, being able to serve more children. One More Child has about 30% of the foster families in the area. In 2021 we served about 40% of the children locally in the system. Our ultimate goal is to have no less than five foster children in each home. Often, we’re exceeding that, which is amazing. When all eight homes are built, can you imagine 40 children living on campus?”
“We’re the funding arm; they’re the operation,” as Floyd Price, Guardian Angels Board member, puts it.
These Foster Family Homes have six bedrooms and six and a half bathrooms so that each child staying in a room has their own private bathroom. Along with being able to house their siblings, this helps a foster child to be able to feel more comfortable when going through what can be a difficult transition for them.
Foster dad Royal Dowdy says: “The homes that the Guardian Angels have provided for us to foster out of are amazing. They are truly gifts. It’s set up in an environment where we can be a family to all of them. We’ve been able to touch lives and change lives not for just today but for their futures.”
His wife, Manida Dowdy, continues: “I couldn’t have designed a better home than what they’ve got here on campus. Not only the house itself and the way it’s set up but having the other foster parents right across the street. Somebody to cry with and pray with and call in times of emergency has worked out beautifully for us.”
The homes take about six months to build, come fully furnished, and are rent-free to ensure the foster parents can focus their expenditures on caring for the foster children to the very best of their ability, taking away the worry of those larger bills. The community also sports a playground for the foster kids to play on. Everything from the fencing to the equipment was donated by different companies.
When reflecting on how he doesn’t have to worry about doing things like mowing the grass, foster dad Travis Matthews says: “I can be more of a dad to these kids.”
As well as providing housing for the foster parents, the Azinger Compassion Center was built on the campus to provide food and non-food items such as car seats, clothing, diapers, books, and toys for the families. Here, families can stop in, grab what they need, and continue down the road to their home and they don’t have to worry about running to the store. This saves families about $1,000 per week in groceries, according to Emily Petrilli, Director of Major Gifts for One More Child.
However, the Azinger Compassion Center doesn’t just provide for the Guardian Angels’ families. Through church partners, those in need can also access all the Center has to offer. Since its opening in October 2020, the Azinger Compassion Center has provided 400,000 pounds of food, which equates to 333,000 meals, and half a million dollars’ worth of non-food items.
“God makes all of this possible through community and just how generous everyone has been over the years,” Floyd Price emphasized. Bruce Williams Homes has been the builder for the Foster Family Homes and has generously donated their materials and time with each build. All items that the Azinger Compassion Center gives out are also provided through donations. Stores like Publix, Kroger, Walmart, and Amazon have given pallets of food and non-food items. “It truly is a God thing, the way we’re able to do all of this,” Bobbie Price, President of Guardian Angels, says.
The Guardian Angels’ nine-acre campus currently serves 23 children and One More Child serves 82 children within the 12th judicial circuit. One More Child has over 40 resource church partners within Sarasota, Manatee, and DeSoto counties and over 100 local partners, like Bradenton Christian School. Children of all ages, from newborn to 21 years old, can be in foster care and they all need placement.
Rachel Froelich, a licensing specialist for Guardian Angels, explains: “When children turn 18, they age out of the foster care system, but they can choose to remain in extended foster care, which is where they would stay with their foster parents while they get on their feet, go to college, find a job, things like that. Foster parents are able to help them start the early years of their life. Florida has extended foster care in order to help those kids get a better start.” Some children are in the foster home for a few nights while some are there for a few years. The goal is to have children achieve permanency in 12 months, though.
Rachel is also a single foster mom who has adopted two children of her own. She recalls a recent success story of one of the children from their program: “A brand new foster mom, with no children of her own, took in a 15-year-old girl who had some behavioral issues. At first, the biological parents were skeptical of the foster mom, and they did not have a close relationship. But through a lot of prayer and counseling, she eventually developed a relationship with the parents where they started attending weekly Bible studies together. Then, they attended her church and got involved, and eventually, the girl was reunified with her parents. They still have a close relationship to this day and speak often.”
Two more lives changed by the program were that of two sisters, Shyanne and Sierra Gutierrez. “Before, when we were with our biological parents, we weren’t really thinking about college and a future. I think it would have just been day-to-day survival. I don’t think we would be sitting here in front of you if it weren’t for Guardian Angels.”