By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
MARTIN COUNTY -- More than three dozen people gathered in Stuart June 12 to celebrate the grand opening of the Martin County Community Center of the Children's Home Society of Florida.
Sabrina Barnes, executive director of the statewide nonprofit organization devoted to helping children and families, officiated at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new center at 322 Georgia Avenue. Local officials in attendance included Jim Vojcsik, the executive director of the United Way of Martin County; District 81 Rep. Gayle Harrell; and Stuart Mayor Troy McDonald.
Matt Anderson, program director for the Treasure Coast division of the Children's Home Society of Florida, said the Martin County facility has been in the works for several years and should have a significant local impact.
"It will be easier and more convenient for clients in Martin County to access services, and we will be able to provide more services out of the community center," Mr. Anderson said.
The center will house a variety of programs and services, including community mental health, an adoptions and heart gallery, Children in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services, a transitional living program and a branch of the national youth runaway prevention organization Safe Place.
Mr. Anderson said the transitional living program will be one of the key components in the new community center aimed at homeless youth and foster children aging out of the system.
"A lot of these youth are coming off the streets and do not know how to open a bank account, manage a budget, find safe housing and transportation," he said. "With the transitional living program, they'll be able to improve these life skills, along with working on their high school diplomas and their job readiness."
Martin County resident Cory McGraw has been receiving services from the Children's Home Society of Florida since he first entered foster care at age six. Now 22, Mr. McGraw lived in the Society's Vero Beach transitional living facility for about a year before finally becoming fully independent. He attended the new center's grand opening and believes the services it will provide will help other youth in the foster-care system.
"It might help someone like me to find another agency," Mr. McGraw said. "It's to help the kids in Martin County to try and basically move up in the world and not have to live on the streets for any reason."
A 2011 graduate of South Fork High School, Mr. McGraw knows fully well what it's like to be homeless. After conflicts with his adoptive family, Mr. McGraw ended up on the streets of West Palm Beach for a brief period before his South Fork automotive technology teacher agreed to house him until high school graduation.
Today he works at the Marshalls in Jensen Beach and has plans to attend Indian River State College in the future.
The Martin Community Center will also house a full-time counselor who will serve in school districts throughout the Treasure Coast in order to prevent youth from escalating into the Juvenile Justice Department or the foster program of the Department of Children and Families. Mr. Anderson believes the new center will truly make a difference for local at-risk youth.
"I think we're going to be able to serve more children and families and have a bigger impact on homeless youth or runaways," he said. "We're going to be able to educate the community that Children's Home Society is in Martin County, and if people need services, all they need to do is stop by and we can help them."
In addition to the Vero Beach facility housing up to 20 youth, the Children's Home Society also operates the Wavecrest Shelter in St. Lucie County, the designated national Safe Place for abused children and runaways on the Treasure Coast.