Ministry Finds New Name as it Embraces Kids Through Florida Programs

When UMCH began expanding its programs in Northwest Florida, “Embrace Florida Kids” seemed like the perfect name for the growing ministry. After all, the United Methodist Children’s Home has been wrapping its arms around children in need of homes, healing and hope in Alabama and Northwest Florida for nearly 130 years.

“The name and the logo are changing, but our focus remains the same, and our ministry will function the same,” said Kristin Alberda, Executive Director of Embrace Florida Kids. “In response to God’s Word, we’ll continue embracing and nurturing vulnerable children and families by providing homes, healing and hope.”

In Northwest Florida, that means providing foster homes, group homes, family preservation services, and support for the growing number of vulnerable children and families. “We work with hundreds of children and their families on any given day,” Alberda said. The kids we serve are victims of choices made by adults in their lives. Too often, they have endured unthinkable childhoods through no fault of their own.”

“While we would love to see fewer children needing to be placed in foster care, we know our services will continue to be needed next week, next month and next year,” says Charlotte Thomas,
Director of Programs for Embrace Florida Kids. “Knowing this, we really strive to build effective programs because some kids may not need us right now but they will certainly need us in the
future – we want to be ready to give them the best care and support possible,” Thomas adds.

Here’s a look at how Embrace Florida Kids provides homes, healing and hope:

  • EMBRACE FOSTER CARE. With an office in Pace, the Embrace Foster Care staff recruits, trains, licenses, supports and retains foster families to provide temporary homes for abused, neglected or abandoned children and youth. In 2018, the ministry provided 15,121 days of care to 116 kids in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. The average number of families is about 30, but this number is expected to grow to meet an ever-increasing demand.
  • EMBRACE MILTON GIRLS HOME. Embrace Milton Girls Home provides 24/7 care to girls ages 12-18, who have experienced significant trauma. Last year, 2,469 days of care were provided for a total of 18 girls.
  • EMBRACE FAMILY PRESERVATION. The Embrace Family Preservation program aims to keep families together by helping parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children. The intensive in-home treatment provides them with the necessary skills to handle challenges in a healthy way and provide safe, loving homes. The agency works with up to 28 families at a time. The program has a 95 percent success rate with no recurrence of abuse. In 2018, UMCH served 389 individuals in 92 families.
  • EMBRACE TEEN CENTER. The center serves youth who have been impacted by the foster care system and their caregivers. Services include tutoring, study skills training, interview training and assistance with job applications and resumes. Students also participate in enrichment and social activities. Caregivers have access to a clothes closet, supply room and food pantry to help offset expenses. Last year, 29 teens were empowered at the center.

“Our programs are life-changing,” Alberda said. “There is nothing more rewarding than watching the children and youth in our care begin to heal. When kids have a loving home, regular meals, structure, and a safe place to rest, they begin to blossom. The transformation is not overnight but it’s a joy to watch it unfold.”

Former Girls Home Resident Returns in a Reversed Role

When Alisha Clary had a chance encounter with her former house mother at her goddaughter’s birthday party in 2006, she left with an answer to prayer.

The birthday girl’s mother had lived with Alisha in UMCH’s group home in Milton, Florida when they were teenagers, and staff members from the home were at the party. One staff member mentioned she was retiring and her position would soon be available. “She said it three different times, and I got the weirdest feeling,” Alisha said.

Not long before the party, Alisha had turned to the Lord for guidance because she felt like her life had no meaning. She was working two jobs and constantly felt overwhelmed. “I prayed and asked what He wanted me to do,” Alisha remembered. That night, she dreamed that she was surrounded by young girls. Their arms were together, forming a circle.

As she left the party, Alisha thought about the dream. “I wondered if this was what He was calling me to do,” she said. “I didn’t know if they would hire me because I had lived there.”

They did, though, and one of Alisha’s former housemothers would train her. Now, Alisha serves as a Youth Care Worker at the home. “Basically, I do everything a parent does, but with a lot of paperwork,” she said.

She cooks, cleans and drives the girls to after-school activities, court or counseling sessions. She helps with homework, attends school programs, but perhaps one of her most notable responsibilities is to relate to girls like only she can having walked in their shoes. Whether it’s emotional, relational or spiritual, she acts as a sounding board and offers insight that’s a result of overcoming
have to overcome.

“I wasn’t in exactly the same situation as a lot of the girls, but we had similar experiences,” she said. “Hopefully they can see that there’s hope for something better. You can be better than what
your parents were.”

Alisha came to the group home when she was 16 and stayed for nearly two years. “It was the only place I ever felt safe and loved,” she said. She started college after she left, but had been working
in retail when Abbi Shawyer, the group home’s manager, hired her.

“When Abbi hired me, it was with the stipulation that I would go back to college and finish my degree,” she said. “I think it was the push I needed.” Alisha earned a degree in social work from the
University of West Florida in May 2011.

Now she strives to be a stable force in the lives of the girls who come to the group home. “It’s an awesome place,” Alisha said. “It’s a place where girls come and feel safe, secure, loved and
nurtured. That’s what we hope for.”

Ministries Trade Spaces to Better Serve Community’s Most Vulnerable.

When Ann Sprague was in the early stages of starting her ministry for the homeless in Crestview, she prayed for God to open doors and windows. She never dreamed those windows and doors would come with 14 bedrooms and 14 bathrooms.

That’s what happened, though, when UMCH had a building in Crestview that was too big for its needs and Sprague’s ministry had needs that were too big for its building. The two agencies decided to trade spaces to better meet the needs of the community.

“We’re working together to do God’s will,” said Sprague, Executive Director of the Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless (CASH). “I knew God had a plan, but He’s so creative. He comes up with ways I could never imagine.”

Anne Sprague, Executive Director of Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless signing contract for the non-profit’s new facility, owned by UMCH.

The facility, now home to CASH’s Helping Hands ministry, was originally used by UMCH as a group home for girls and boys, ages 11-17, who could no longer live with their families. Four years after it opened, child welfare advocates at the federal level began advocating for foster homes instead of group homes, and UMCH helped the kids transition, finding foster homes for some as others transitioned to independence, according to Kristin Alberda, Executive Director.

In an effort to continue supporting the youth and their foster families, UMCH changed its focus and opened a teen center, offering after-school programs, tutoring, and help with resumes, job applications and interview training. The center also provides snacks, hygiene items, and opportunities for the youth to participate in enrichment activities such as art and dance classes. “It’s hard for children in transition to participate in extracurricular activities, but it’s important to help them build social skills” Alberda said. “This all came from a desire to provide some additional support to keep kids stable wherever they are.”

Kids and youth at First United Methodist Church in Crestview gather outside of the Embrace Teen Center. Over the past year, the church has taken on the teen center as a major missions project.

While the Embrace Teen Center serves many needs, the facility was too big for its current use. The solution came during a meeting with staff of UMCH’s recently rebranded Northwest Florida ministry, and Dr. Michael Precht, who at the time, was the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Crestview. CASH had been using a former parsonage on the church property as a cold night shelter and the ministry’s headquarters, and Precht knew of Sprague’s desire to expand.

“We’re working together to do God’s will,” said Sprague, Executive Director of the Crestview Area Shelter for the Homeless (CASH). “I knew God had a plan, but He’s so creative. He comes up with ways I could never imagine.”

“I was very aware of how desperately the community needed these resources for the homeless because we fielded those calls every day,” he said. “By the end of our meeting, we were thinking, we were dreaming, we were wondering if it could come to be. It was a real answer to prayer.”

Sprague had been searching for the perfect facility for quite a while. After a 35-year career in teaching, she started her ministry in 2008 in hopes of providing a cold night shelter for those living on the streets. She partnered with churches that opened their doors to the homeless during bad weather, but after a few years, the demand had grown and so had the ministry.

In 2014, CASH organized as a 501(c)3 and First Methodist offered the use of its former parsonage for office space. They added a day program coined “Helping Hands” which provides lunch, laundry facilities, showers, clothing, and other necessities. In addition, volunteers provide transportation to doctors’ appointments and help the homeless get prescriptions, identification and benefits such as Social Security disability.

The only thing missing was a permanent home that would allow the ministry to serve those in need year-round. When Sprague first saw UMCH’s space, “my mouth dropped open,” she said. The building has two separate wings so they can accommodate men on one side, women and children on the other, and have a few rooms reserved for families. “We’ve had as many as 30 people lined up to use one shower at our old place – one shower,” Sprague said. “Now we have 14 showers. You always hope and dream you’ll get a better place and be able to help more people, but you don’t know how that will happen. You just know that God has a plan.

Precht, who has since moved to Dauphin Way United Methodist Church, said the Crestview congregation was excited about the opportunity to work more closely with the Embrace Teen Center. “We take great pride in honoring and supporting the kids in the Children’s Home, and I just knew our church would be so excited to have them in our backyard.”

Alberda said the Embrace Teen Center is enjoying its new home in the 3-bedroom, 2-bath parsonage at First Methodist, and the congregation welcomed them by stocking the shelves with school supplies, backpacks and toiletries. In addition, the students are able to use the church’s facilities and outdoor space for their programs. “The church has been very gracious,” she said. “It’s all pretty exciting.”

No one is more excited than Sprague. “I get emotional talking about it,” she said. “We’re just so grateful to the Children’s Home for this blessing. God definitely had His hand in this.”