TAMPA — When people used to return home after college or a stint in the military to reunite with family and friends, community meant more than a group of houses.
Back then, community meant that when a youngster got into mischief or worse, parents could expect a call from a neighbor. If dad was at work and mom had to run errands, a neighbor volunteered to watch their child for a few hours, or get him or her to ball practice.
Sometimes that lack of old-school community in this fast-paced age is a roadblock to couples or individuals considering adoption, said Paul Halpern, executive director of New Life Village, a once-abandoned townhouse community at the edge of an industrial district in Tampa.
“Maybe there are couples who are empty-nesters, considering adopting. Or there’s that single person who wants kids but is still waiting for the right partner. That partner could be this village,” Halpern said.
Back in 2006, Sister Clair Le Boeuf, executive director emeritus of Everyday Blessings group foster home in Thonotosassa, came across a village in Rantoul, Ill., that had established a sense of community. The village’s founders had placed 50 special-needs foster children in adoptive families, all of whom lived in the same community. Senior citizens moved in at reduced rents to act as surrogate grandparents, helping children and teens with homework, at playtime and when times got tough at home.
Le Boeuf’s vision was to bring such a village here, to land owned by her religious order, Sisters of Holy Cross.
She and her colleagues found a townhouse development in foreclosure just off of 50th Street and south of Palm River Road. They bought the gated development after deciding they could transform it into their envisioned old-school community.
Now they are seeking tenants ready to adopt foster children — adults who would like to create a community where neighbors help neighbors; where surrogate grandparents are ready to lend a hand.
“There are a lot of services for the hungry and homeless, but children tend to languish in foster care,” Le Boeuf said. “Kids don’t belong in foster care. They belong with families. This village is all about families and how families can fall back on each other, be a community.”
New Life Village has found a volunteer contractor, Manhattan Construction, to complete unfinished units. Subcontractors and donated materials still are needed.
The biggest challenge, though, is finding the right people to move in, adopt foster children and create the desired sense of community, Halpern said.
“The real enticement should not be the discounted rent, but living here as part of a community and getting support to raise children,” he said. “We haven’t been attracting enough people who qualify, who are eligible and ready to adopt.
“Because we are a different solution to an old problem, there is a tremendous disconnect. It doesn’t compute in people’s minds,” Halpern said. “We are trying to go back to the way it used to be and the way, in my opinion, it should be — re-creating the real concept of home, which is more than a house.”
It has clicked for some, like Maryann Stenlund, a single senior who moved from Brandon into a two-bedroom townhouse in May.
“I found this while looking on the Internet for a volunteer opportunity,” Stenlund said. “I had heard about Sister Clair through volunteering at A Kid’s Place,” a group foster home in Brandon. Stenlund went to the village, heard the pitch and joined in.
She and one of her young neighbors now take walks together and play in the swimming pool. They even made muffins together recently.
Farrol Thomas, a single mom with two boys of her own before fostering, then adopting, a third child last year, learned about the village through her church, Idlewild Baptist. “I was living in Lutz. I sent a message saying I wanted to find out more about the village. We moved in a couple months later,” Thomas said.
“I know this isn’t for everyone, but I totally appreciate the vision,” she said. “I have had multiple contact with kids in care and thought it would be great to be in a place where adoption would be the norm ... as opposed to being the different one. Foster and adopted children are already somewhat out of place in the community. This just offers another degree of normalcy.”
The New Life Village board will continue to reach out to singles groups at area churches and to civic organizations, looking for individuals and couples ready to join the community and adopt children who might languish in the foster care system, Le Boeuf said.
Le Boeuf hopes eventually to add duplexes for seniors who can’t climb stairs. Halpern envisions large single-family houses for families willing to adopt sibling groups.
For information, call (813) 304-0623 or email Halpern at paul@newlife village.org.