Two Child Advocates, One Mission, Birthdays for Foster Children

Two Child Advocates, One Mission, Birthdays for Foster Children

Communications strategist, business owner, mother of two, and diehard child advocate Shaw Heydt Thomas, was introduced to child welfare and the societal implications of abuse, abandonment, and neglect through her work with various South Florida organizations. Through her many service efforts, she was learned about the work of the Guardian ad Litem Program, a league of approximately 600 volunteer court-appointed child advocates serving as the voice for victims of maltreatment. At any given time, in Palm Beach County alone, there are between 1,400 and 1,600 children involved in victimization cases; usually perpetrated by the adults they trusted the most. Each of these children deserve a voice in the court system; but the workers are too few to meet the need. 

“I saw, in a very real way, how the budget shortfalls realized by the Guardian ad Litem Program had a direct impact on the safety, security, normalcy, and permanency goals of the children the system set out to serve,” says Thomas. When a dedicated group of volunteer advocates decided to form the Speak up for Kids of Palm Beach County nonprofit with an exclusive focus on raising supplemental funding for the Guardian ad Litem, Thomas was at the table as a founding member, dedicated to achieving 100% advocacy for all children involved in dependency proceedings. “I cannot believe that was 10 years ago; so much has happened since then,” Thomas laughs. “Most recently we reached 100% advocacy for children in Belle Glade. That is tremendous, but there is always more to do.”

Today, Thomas is the President of the Board of Directors of Speak Up for Kids and her resolve remains unwavering.  While attending a symposium, she learned that most children in foster care never experience a birthday party; she was determined to change that. Known in her professional circles as an action-oriented leader, she is adept at creating solutions when challenges were presented. Thomas created and implemented the Speak Up for Kids ‘Gift-A-Birthday’ program. “To be truly impactful, conversations around child welfare and foster care must include normalcy for victims. That includes celebrating a child on his or her birthday,” says Thomas, “and anyone can make that happen with a $25 donation.” 

“The foster care and child welfare systems do not reach as many people as they should because the message is just too much. It is a gargantuan issue, laced with epic shortfalls, and even though the masses are moved emotionally when they hear the sad stories, they feel overwhelmed and ill-equipped to help in any meaningful way,” says Guardian ad Litem child advocate, and former foster child, Christopher Ray Warner.

Warner began his journey in foster care at the age of three and remained in the system until he ‘aged out’ at 18. Now in his 20’s, Warner recalls his experiences growing up ‘in care’ as a time of constant upheaval and uncertainty with very few moments of joy or celebration. When he heard about Speak Up for Kids Gift-A-Birthday program, he thought, “Wow! They get it!” 

Citing Thomas as his inspiration, Warner created the unBirthday Partyan event where art and creativity combine with a cause. Warner, as well as other child welfare advocates, will be on hand to ‘Spill the Tea’, a euphemism for the foster care truths Q&A session central to the event.  

Warner hosts these events several times per year.  “This is a community effort with businesses either partnering for each event,” says Warner. “Partners like Subculture Coffee, who, donates the space to us, Heather Neiman Art make these conversations possible,” he continues.

“We have increased participation with each event and more people are beginning to see that everyone can do something,” Warner says. “It is revolutionary when I tell someone that it is ‘OK’ to impact only one person and I see that they get it. Not everyone is made to take on an entire system; most of us aren’t equipped to do that.”

Warner, who has fond memories of his own Guardian ad Litem, admits that he has kept every birthday and greeting card he has ever received through his time in foster care; even through periods of homelessness. “By celebrating a child, we tell them they are worthy, and they begin to internalize their value. Sometimes, that is all they’ve got. I know how much it meant to me.”

Through ongoing financial support, Speak Up for Kids champions the efforts of the volunteer child advocates of the Guardian ad Litem Program. Their Foster Palm Beach program works to find foster homes for children in care.  For more information on this event, to sign your business up to host an unBirthday event, or to find out ways you or your organization can help, call 561.408.7779.

Increase in opioid addiction is causing a strain the foster care system

Increase in opioid addiction is causing a strain the foster care system

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — A shortage in foster care parents in Palm Beach County has a foster care advocate asking people to step up and become foster parents. 

The reason for the need is the increase in parents using opioids.

Diana Reese, advocate with Speak Up for Kids, said over 400 hundred children have ended up in foster care in the county since the beginning of the year, outpacing the number of foster homes available.

This is causing many of children to end up in group homes.

Multi-disciplinary team and the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program

Multi-disciplinary team and the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program

Florida Guardian ad Litem prides itself on a team approach to representing abused, abandoned and neglected children. In this video, some of our finest attorneys explain why our multi-disciplinary team is a model for representing children's best interests.

Guardian ad Litem

Guardian ad Litem

Guardian ad Litem

by Christen Thompson on June 18, 2019 in DonatingFamilyMom

Although the summer has officially started and we are now in June, the month of May was Foster Care Awareness Month. One great way to support foster children and families in our community, is to volunteer your time with the Guardian ad Litem program. If you don’t have time for volunteering right now, another great way to help is to donate your gently used baby and kids’ items to organizations like Speak Up for Kids or Place of Hope, whose mission it is to provide for the needs of local children in Palm Beach County.

Guardian ad Litem


A Guardian ad Litem (GAL) is a volunteer who is appointed by the court, to advocate for the needs of children in the dependency system, which is the process families go through after suffering abuse or neglect. In order to volunteer, you must be 21 years old, and attend a training that is paid for by the program. Next, you are responsible to visit the child or children on your case at least once a month, to attend court hearings about once every six months, and to submit a report to the court based on your observations.

The Guardian ad Litem program is part of a larger, nationwide system called the Court Appointed Special Advocate Program (CASA). It is made up of staff members and trained volunteers. In Florida, it is called Guardian ad Litem, and is part of the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit here in Palm Beach County.

Beyond volunteering, there are many ways to help local children:

Place of Hope

Place of Hope is a nonprofit organization that provides faith-based, family style foster care and other services for children and young people in the community, as well as their families. It has made a huge impact in our community, by providing services for over 11,000 children, youth, and families, including caring for over 340 children and youth daily, and finding homes for over 250 young men and women who would otherwise be homeless. (Source: Place of Hope 2018 Impact Statement).

You can donate baby and children’s clothing, toys, and furniture and larger items like cribs, to Place of Hope or their charity store, called Treasures for Hope.

Speak Up for Kids

Speak Up for Kids is a nonprofit organization that supports the work of the Guardian ad Litem program. They accept donations of clothing and toys, and many GAL volunteers use this as a resource for the children on their cases. According to their website:

“Children with a GAL Child Advocate are…
TWICE as likely to find a safe, permanent home
HALF as likely to re-enter foster care
MORE LIKELY to receive available therapeutic services
MORE ATTENTIVE and do better in school
. . . than any child without a GAL Child Advocate Volunteer.”

Being involved with these organizations is a great way to be deeply connected to our community, by supporting local children.

Foster care students overcome odds, celebrate graduation in Palm Beach County

Foster care students overcome odds, celebrate graduation in Palm Beach County

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Forty Palm Beach Foster Care youth making their way through the system are also making strides towards success.

Angela Dawkins was one of the 40 youths honored Thursday in a graduation achievement celebration sponsored by ChildNet .

“What I went through affects what I want to be in life, so it basically pushed me and strengthened me to be who I am,” says Dawkins.

MORE: Read more "Good News" stories

The honorees celebrated different types of success: high school diplomas, GEDs, vocational certifications and college degrees.

“It means a lot to me because a lot of people doubted me. They said I’d be just like my mom or my dad. So, basically I just crossed a very big milestone, and I’m proud of myself because I could’ve been given up,” said Dawkins.

She wouldn’t have been alone. According to Casey Family Programs, it’s estimated across the country only 30 percent of children who grow up in foster care graduate from high school.

CEO and President of Larry Rein says the youth in Palm Beach County have some help from, “organizations like Vita Nova, Place of Hope, Best Foot Forward all work to support these kids, Children’s Home Society. So, we do a good job in Florida, not as good as we really need to but we do a good job.”

Students like Dawkins say they hope other foster care youth can take after her.

”I am an example and inspiration to my generation and many more because we can do anything we put our minds to. We just have to really want it, and we have to work hard for it. And it’s never gonna be easy. It’s gonna be hard. But if it’s not hard, is it really worth it or deserving?”

Dawkins says she plans on attending Tallahassee State Community College then Florida State while chasing her dreams to be a child advocacy lawyer.

Copyright 2019 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Forest Hill graduate hopes tough childhood will inspire others

Forest Hill graduate hopes tough childhood will inspire others

REDFORD, Mich. (WXYZ) — When she was only 12 years old, she became part of the foster care system through the Judson Center. Now, she’s working for Judson Center to pay it forward to other children. 

"I truly love what I do,” said Brandy Mason. 

Brandy Mason is the Building Community Partnership Program Manager at the Judson Center. Her job is to successfully reunite families who’ve been separated through foster care, providing guidance and tools to make such families can live happy and health lives. Her work takes her to Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Genesee Counties.

"I spent six years in foster care, so I know foster care,” said Mason. 

When Mason was born, her grandfather took over to raise her. At the age of 6, Mason says she was reunited with her mother, only to suffer physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather.

“My stepfather was a tyrant, he was a true tyrant, and he made our lives hell,” said Mason. 

Mason spoke out about the abuse, was placed in the care of other family members and eventually ended up in foster care through Judson Center when she was 12. 

It was not until she was 17 years old that she was reunited with her biological father, and was placed into his care. 

She credits her social worker through the Judson Center for helping her through the pain and anger she felt after the abuse. Mason says being in foster care was her saving grace, and believes the abuse she suffered is now helping in the work she does today.

“I do believe that there was a purpose for my pain, I don’t think that everything I went through it was just for naught, it was a reason why God had my path to go through,” said Mason. 

There are more than 13,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system and only about 6,000 available foster homes. Mason is urging anyone with a big enough home and heart to consider being a foster care parent.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, click here .

Copyright 2019 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Guardian ad Litem Child Advocate Dedicates over a decade and more than 22,880 Volunteer Hours 

Guardian ad Litem Child Advocate Dedicates over a decade and more than 22,880 Volunteer Hours 

WEST PALM BEACH - By the time most of us take the first sip of our morning coffee, 72-year old retired educator and current Guardian ad Litem (GAL) and Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County volunteer, Ellen Kranzler, has already researched her newest child abuse case, created a plan of action, made a list of people to contact for one of the many events she organizes, and set up the dates for the next GAL book review. “Ellen is a force of nature,” says Coleen LaCosta, Executive Director of Speak Up for Kids, “…and her heart for these children and our program shines through in all she does.”

Kranzler is one of greater than 600 Palm Beach County volunteer child advocates known as Guardians ad Litem; a league of court-appointed volunteers representing the child’s best interests in cases of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. When an allegation of child abuse is investigated and substantiated by DCF, the child(ren) is removed from parental custody and, when appropriate, placed with relatives or family friends. When other arrangements are unavailable, they are placed in a foster or group home setting. In the best scenario, heroes like Kranzler are assigned to the case and walk with the child victim throughout the sometimes years long process. 

Guardian ad Litem Circuit Director, Michelle Canaday, says, “It is typical for the GAL to be the only consistent adult in the child’s life through their dependency court journey. On any given day there are between 1,300 and 1,600 children in care; we simply do not have enough Guardians to go around.” Kranzler says she is, “…filling in the gap. No child should be left without a voice in their own life. None of these children should feel as if no one cares. None of them deserve that.”

In the 11 years Kranzler has been a Guardian ad Litem volunteer child advocate, she has dedicated greater than 22,880 volunteer hours equating to an estimated $550,000 of salary savings to the program. Since her appointment as a GAL, she has been assigned greater than 55 cases, some involving sibling groups in varied placements. Her advocacy has extended to children with disabilities, including Asperger Syndrome, ADHD, and Autism, visiting children from Jacksonville to Miami, and ensuring their best interests are represented.

Walk into the Guardian ad Litem or Speak Up for Kids offices and mention Ellen’s name and the love and admiration for her simply envelopes you. According to staff and volunteers, Kranzler serves as a mentor to incoming GALs, the district transportation coordinator, and the organizer of the annual GAL Appreciation Dinner. She is also the chairperson for annual GAL Holiday Party where GALs from across the county not only share a meal and encourage one another, but also shop for toys for children in their care, choosing from among the thousands of donations received through Speak Up for Kids. Kranzler has also crafted the local Storybook Village, an annual community event, where books come to life and imagination soars for the estimated 1,500 child and adult attendees.

To combat the statistic of homelessness in foster youth, Kranzler has established a working relationship with independent living service providers to secure housing and support for youth as they transition into adulthood from the foster care system. She takes children on outings, hosts birthday parties at her home, often for children whose birthdays have never been celebrated.  Canady says, “Ellen is a grandmother to many of these kids, and she is an angel to us.”


Though the Guardian ad Litem program is state-funded, there are tremendous shortfalls. Speak Up for Kids is the nonprofit that raises money to achieve the mission of 100% advocacy for kids in care. “Volunteers like Ellen are crucial to our success,” says LaCosta. “Ellen drives daily from her home in Boynton Beach to the Palm Beach County Courthouse in downtown West Palm Beach, volunteering the equivalent of full-time hours each week dedicated to in-house administrative functions. That’s in addition to the cases she oversees.”

Recently, Kranzler was nominated for, and won, the Area Agency on Aging 2019 Prime Time Calidus Management Award for Volunteerism. This is a celebration of senior volunteers from Palm Beach, Martin, Indian River, and Saint Lucie counties with the breakfast and award ceremony scheduled for 9 a.m. on May 23rd at the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott. 

When asked how she feels about being selected for this prestigious award, Kranzler reflects, “I am honored to even be nominated, but I am not special. Each day, I get to see our community’s dedication to child victims of abuse, and I am blessed to be able to help. We all have the capacity to do something. The tragedy occurs when we choose not to.” Kranzler laughed at the idea of slowing down and taking things at an easier pace, saying, “There is still so much to do.”

Florida Guardian Ad Litem Volunteer Opportunity

Florida Guardian Ad Litem Volunteer Opportunity


Guardian Ad Litem is a state supported program of trained volunteers 21 years of age and older and professional staff.  These volunteers become part of the court process in order to represent and advocate for a child’s best interest.  Most of these children, now subjects of judicial proceedings, have been removed from their homes because of alleged abuse, abandonment or neglect.

Our volunteers advocate for needed services for the child, report to the judge, case manager and attorney via written reports/ testimony and monitor the case from beginning to end. With a GAL, a child is half as likely to languish in the foster care and child welfare system and more likely to find a safe, permanent home.

In Palm Beach County, there are approximately 1,400-1,600 children in the system at this time. To be part of Guardian ad Litem, there are no special legal skills necessary- just good common sense and the desire to help abused and neglected children. Someone interested in helping children may also volunteer for our Speak Up for Kids program. Speak Up for Kids’ is a 501(c3) non-profit whose sole purpose is to support the GAL program and its mission through fundraising, grants, community events/ awareness and presentations. Volunteers are needed for Marketing, Website Management, Administrative, Special Events and Media Relations.

To VOLUNTEER or obtain more information regarding Guardian ad Litem and Speak Up for Kids, visit our website at or or call 561-355-6224. 

Make a lasting difference in the life of a child. VOLUNTEER to be the VOICE of a child.

Tagged: #Volunteers #AARP   

Forever Family: Getting involved in the Guardian ad Litem program

Forever Family: Getting involved in the Guardian ad Litem program

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CBS12) — If you aren't in the position to foster or adopt, there is still a way to make a lasting difference in the lives of children in foster care.

Here's more about the Guardian ad Litem program and how you can get involved.

2019 Birth to 22 Business Champions announced; Three 'Charities of Choice' selected Source: Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County Date: April 12, 2019

2019 Birth to 22 Business Champions announced; Three 'Charities of Choice' selected Source: Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County Date: April 12, 2019

Three Palm Beach County businesses working to help improve outcomes for children and youth were named “2019 Birth to 22 Business Champions” Friday during the second annual Birth to 22 Business Breakfast April 12 at the West Palm Beach Marriott.

The Champions are:

Small Business – Progressive Pediatric Therapy. Progressive Pediatric offers services for developmentally delayed children, including a monthly wheelchair clinic and orthotic clinic to evaluate children between the ages of 3 and 22 years for custom wheelchairs. Physical and occupational therapists in the practice work with school-based therapists to ensure that children receive maximum benefit. Approximately 120 students have been served.Mid-Sized Business – Boca West Country Club. The Project SEARCH program at Boca West Country Club enables students with intellectual or developmental disabilities to cultivate marketable skills through internship opportunities. Such partnerships provide a sustainable, steadfast future for these students and give the business access to a new and diverse talent stream.Large Business – The Breakers. The Breakers Palm Beach Resort has been instrumental in supporting a coordinated and collaborative effort to improve the foster care system. One effort is the construction of the Visitation Center at the Children’s Home Society. Children and families are able to have supervised visits there in a safe, welcoming and comfortable environment, which is essential for creating and maintaining healthy relationships and reducing trauma.

Each Business Champion selected a local charity to receive a share of the proceeds from Friday’s event, called “Birth to 22: Shaping Our Children’s Future Together.” Selected 'Charities of Choice' are:, selected by Progressive Pediatric Therapy. Hope4Mobility’s mission is to provide people with developmental disabilities and special needs financial assistance and relief so they can get essential equipment, products and therapy services to help improve their health, mobility and quality of life.Unicorn Children's Foundation, selected by Boca West Country Club. Unicorn is dedicated to redefining what is possible for individuals with intellectual/developmental disorders by creating cradle to career pathways that will allow them to live productive, engaged and fulfilled lives.Speak Up for Kids! selected by The Breakers. Speak Up for Kids! is committed to providing every vulnerable child in Palm Beach County with a voice to advocate for their physical, educational, and emotional best interests.

The alliance, Birth to 22: United for Brighter Futures, was established in 2013. More than 300 people attended the sold-out Business Breakfast.

“The businesses currently supporting Birth to 22 add an invaluable dimension to our collective impact efforts,” said Tammy Fields, Director of Palm Beach County’s Youth Services Department, and Lisa Williams-Taylor, CEO of Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County. “Many view their participation as a sound investment made today — for compounded returns tomorrow.”


About Birth to 22: United for Brighter Futures

Birth to 22 is a collective impact alliance designed to achieve social change through strategic collaboration. The mission is to support the healthy growth, development and education of our children and youth prenatal through young adulthood, so they can graduate from high school and succeed in life.

Fran Sadoff-Lebow and 15 of her friends will pack 67 backpacks with essential items Sunday to donate to Palm Beach County’s foster care children.

Fran Sadoff-Lebow and 15 of her friends will pack 67 backpacks with essential items Sunday to donate to Palm Beach County’s foster care children.

PALM BEACH GARDENS — Fran Sadoff-Lebow had little trouble raising thousands of dollars for a national children’s charity.

The Palm Beach Gardens resident and former special needs teacher reached out to everyone she knew to support Comfort Cases, a Maryland-based nonprofit that provides children in the foster care system with backpacks filled with essential items.

“I am a really good networker, and have a bit of a pit-bull personality,” Sadoff-Lebow said.

RELATED: New program seeks to recruit Palm Beach County foster parents

With an assist from her friends and many others, Sadoff-Lebow raised about $4,000 to purchase 67 backpacks and supplies with which to fill them.

On Sunday, she will host a packing party with 15 of her friends to pack the bags with supplies such as pajamas, blankets, toiletries, books, stuffed animals and baby items.

Once the backpacks are filled, they will be delivered to Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County, Inc., a nonprofit that works with the Guardian Ad Litem program to advocate for the physical, educational and emotional best interests of children in the dependency court system.

Sadoff-Lebow plans to send Speak Up for Kids 25 backpacks per month beyond the initial donation because of the size of its caseload.

According to the organization, there are more than 1,400 children in Palm Beach County who are involved in dependency court.

“We selected Speak Up for Kids because they are local,” Sadoff-Lebow said. “Also, as a Guardian Ad Litem for children in foster care, they advocate for children in care on a daily basis.”

Sadoff-Lebow worked with foster care children and special needs students for about 30 years as a teacher and administrator in Maryland. When she heard of Comfort Cases through a friend, Lesley Robinson, she jumped at the opportunity to assist in its mission.

RELATED: New adoption website uses eHarmony tech to find homes for foster kids

“I worked with many foster care children,” she said. “So many of them had such a low self-esteem and lacked a sense of dignity. I was very intrigued with what Lesley shared and wanted to volunteer, especially after having experienced a different side of working with children in need. I have done a lot of volunteer work. This just called to me.”

Sadoff-Lebow plans to continue her work with Comfort Cases, whose mission is to bring dignity and hope for children in foster care. These children often carry their belongings in trash bags when they move from home to home. 

“Our goal is to get a Comfort Case to everyone of the 438,000 children in foster care in the United States,” Sadoff-Lebow said. “No more trash bags.”

Sadoff-Lebow is accepting donations for Comfort Cases. For information, contact her at, or


Press Release - Stars align to donate their time in honor of child victims of abuse

Press Release - Stars align to donate their time in honor of child victims of abuse

Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County Eighth Annual Benefit Gala 

Stars align to donate their time in honor of child victims of abuse

WEST PALM BEACH – “What better way to raise money than to have a party?” This question, posed almost one decade ago between passionate volunteer child advocates, Lou Scher and Larry Geller, morphed into a star-studded stage show now enjoying its eighth year; each year drawing larger, sold-out crowds.

On April 1, 2019 guests will enjoy performances by Bruce Smirnoff, Marica McClain, William Michals, and Sarge. These artists have graced both stage and screen and Smirnoff and McClain have committed to Speak Up for Kidsfor the past eight years, using their voices to raise money for those without a voice. 

“When stars align, it is always a thing of beauty,” says Speak Up for Kids Executive Director Coleen LaCosta. “For eight years running artists have committed to donating their time and talent to help give a voice to our most vulnerable. We remain honored and humbled.” 

To date, Speak Up’s GALA events have raised over $200,000, directly supporting Palm Beach County’s Guardian ad Litem Program and, on average, the 1,650 Palm Beach County children they represent. In 2018 alone, 642 case-carrying GAL volunteers helped 2,259 children, investing over 23,500 volunteer hours to advocate for their best interest! It is no wonder they are referred to as guardian angels. 

In addition to this phenomenal Gala, Geller and Scher served as a formidable Guardian ad Litem team – advocating for more than 100 children. This year’s event is bittersweet in that it will be the second year without Lou Scher. 

Geller, reflecting on Scher, says, “Some say angels walk among us. If that is true, Lou Scher was certainly an angel.” He continued, “I imagine Lou will be in the audience at every year’s Gala, with that signature twinkle in his eye, cheering for the performers and knowing he left a legacy that continues to impact the lives of our kids.” 


Palm Beach woman on mission to reform foster care

Palm Beach woman on mission to reform foster care

Foster children in Palm Beach County matter. That’s the mantra that drives Kathy Leone to advocate, support and push for the protection and survival of the children who depend on it.

“It is incumbent on all of us, as residents of PBC, to care for these children, many of whom have no one else,” Leone said.

The 60-year-old, of Palm Beach, spends the bulk of her time building consensus and awareness on the issues that negatively impact children in foster care, finding solutions and raising money to fund them.

StandUp For Kids, a nonprofit whose goal is to empower homeless and at-risk youth toward lifelong personal growth, recently nominated Leone for Woman Volunteer of the Year. While working tirelessly to improve child welfare, she broke foster care barriers by creating a visitation center and working with all partners to create a successful system of care in the county.

“I’m proud of the role I’ve played to encourage a renewed spirit of collaboration and cooperation among the key stakeholders who work in the foster care system,” Leone said. “Also, I have worked hard to create awareness of the need to join the effort within our local community.”

Her hope is to continue to increase the number involved in organizations such as the guardian ad litem program, mentoring and tutoring, donating to organizations like Speak Up for Kids, Vita Nova and the Children’s Home Society.

“But just as important would be to meet some of the children, look in their eyes, talk to them and ask them, when appropriate, what they want and need,” Leone said. “Most times, the answer will surprise you.”

Leone also stresses the importance of longevity in volunteering for kids.


Who is your hero?

My heroes are those who inspire me to be a better human being, and I have had many heroes throughout my life; currently I have three close friends fighting late-stage cancer. Their courage and strength coupled with their ability to be joyful and present each moment of the day is incredibly inspiring to me. Also, many of the foster children I have met inspire me as well. Their resiliency and perseverance, in spite of the difficult hand they have been dealt, always lifts my spirits and strengthens me to forge ahead.

What is your favorite movie?

I am a sucker for sappy Christmas movies ... watching any and all of them makes me happy.

What are your hobbies?

Anything that involves being outdoors: biking, hiking, downhill skiing, snowmobiling. (I love snow!)

What do you do to get away or take a break?

I love to travel together as a family with my husband and four sons. On a daily basis, taking a break involves going to Mass usually at St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach, taking time to pray or reading Scripture.

If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?

Pope John Paul, Mother Teresa and Grandfather Dixon, who passed away before I was born.

What is the best advice you ever received?

I read a quote by Harry Truman which really spoke to me as I was beginning to embark on this reform effort: “There is no limit to what can be achieved, when no one cares who gets the credit.”

What event in history would you have liked to have witnessed?

My dad was a pilot in World War II and flew numerous dangerous missions “over the hump” in the Far East. It might sound crazy to some, but I would have liked to have “been there” for that. He was an extraordinarily brave and amazing human being.

What is your favorite childhood memory?

There are many, but I suppose one of my favorites is this: For years, my father would take my brother, sister and me skiing every weekend in the winter, and after a full day of skiing, cold and tired, we would always stop on the way home for pizza and hot chocolate at the same place, Pizza Villa. That warm, cozy feeling has stuck with me all these years, and I feel blessed and fortunate to have had a childhood with so many happy memories. In a way, it’s why I am so determined to work to ensure all children also have the opportunity to develop precious childhood memories with a family, whether it be their own or an adopted one, rather than one that is filled with fear, neglect and trauma.

The 10th Annual Great Charity Challenge Awards $1.3 Million

The 10th Annual Great Charity Challenge Awards $1.3 Million

Despite threatening skies, the weather held out and presented a beautiful night under the lights for the 10th annual Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments, on Saturday, Feb. 2 at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.

An annual highlight of the Winter Equestrian Festival, $1.3 million in grants and prize money was awarded to a wide array of Palm Beach County charities. The evening’s theme of “We are the World” focused on bringing the community together, and it did so with great success.

The top spot and largest purse of $150,000 went to Holy Ground Shelter for the Homeless with team sponsor Pine Hollow and corporate sponsor Havensafe Farm providing support. The team of winning riders — David Blake, Carly Dvorkin and Madelyn Ruskin — put up the impressive time of 91.904 seconds in the pro/am relay race format.

After 10 years of hard work, the Great Charity Challenge has distributed $13.5 million to more than 230 local charities.

“Equestrian Sport Productions and Wellington Equestrian Partners take on all the costs associated with this event,” GCC Executive Director Anne Caroline Valtin explained. “Which means that every single penny we fundraise goes straight to local charities, which is an amazing achievement in itself.”

The impact of the money raised reaches far beyond one-time assistance for the winners.

Gregg Weiss, with Speak Up for Kids Palm Beach County, not only drew one of the names for a grant during last weekend’s event, but also knows the long-term importance of the GCC.

“Five years ago, we had the opportunity to participate in this event. Our number was pulled, our team was savvy and won $150,000,” Weiss said. “That more than doubled our annual budget. It set us on a trajectory for sustainability.”

Second place this year and a check for $125,000 went to the Kids Cancer Foundation, as riders Katherine Barnard, Samantha Wight and Daniel Bluman came in just one second off from the top spot. The team sponsor was the Wight Family with corporate sponsor Artemis Farm.

Claire Schreder, Coco Fath and Molly Ashe won the $100,000 prize for third place on behalf of Speak Up for Kids Palm Beach County. Team sponsor Louisburg Farm and corporate sponsor Fidelity Investments supported the Swiss-inspired riders and horses.

Only three seconds separated the top three teams when the competition ended.

The top five teams at the end of the evening included the Spirit of Giving Network in fourth place receiving $80,000 and Jeff Industries in fifth for $70,000. Hope 4 Mobility, the Boca West Children’s Foundation, the Community Caring Center of Palm Beach County, Genesis Assistance Dogs and the Friends of Foster Children rounded out the top 10.

In all, 26 teams competed, and every charity went home a winner. Even the final ranked team received a prize for $15,500 for their organization.

With the costumes being a big part of the event’s tradition, an additional $11,000 in costume awards were given. Jeff Industries took the top spot and a $3,000 prize for Brazilian-inspired costumes. Friends of Foster Children’s Viking costumes took second place for $2,000, while Back to Basics, honoring Jamaica, placed third and received $1,000.

In addition, the Zeigler Family Foundation awarded $50,000 total to five charities. The Arc of Palm Beach County, the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County, the Lord’s Place, the Area Agency on Aging and the Urban Youth Impact each received $10,000 checks.

GCC founder Mark Bellissimo, CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, addressed the crowd of spectators and spoke about the event’s impact.

“We measure this event not by the money raised but by the number of lives we’ve touched,” Bellissimo said. “There are hundreds of thousands of lives that have been touched by this event. We are so proud of all the help and support.”

But the evening overflowed with charitable giving as 10 more grants, starting at $10,000 progressing down to $1,000, were selected during the intermission. The winners, in consecutive order, were Palm Beach County 4H Youth Development, the Children’s Museum, the Unicorn Children’s Foundation, the Child Rescue Coalition, the George Snow Scholarship Fund, Student Aces, the Glades Initiative, Nonprofits First, PBC Pals and the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County.

In the Wellington public school art contest, Elbridge Gale Elementary School won Most Original, Panther Run Elementary School won for Most Inspiring and Wellington Elementary School had the Best Representation of the Cause — each bringing a $1,500 prize home to their school. The Best Overall prize of $2,000 went to Okeeheelee Middle School.

Eight awards of $1,000 each were given to all participating schools, in addition to a few $500 bonuses. Binks Forest Elementary School received the elementary level bonus, the middle school bonus went to Emerald Cove Middle School and the high school bonus was awarded to Wellington High School.

For more information, along with complete results on both the competition and additional grants, visit

Tenth Annual Great Charity Challenge, Presented by Fidelity Investments®, Crowns Holy Ground Shelter for the Homeless as Winner

Tenth Annual Great Charity Challenge, Presented by Fidelity Investments®, Crowns Holy Ground Shelter for the Homeless as Winner

Wellington, FL – February 2, 2019 – The “Saturday Night Lights” of the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) beamed on Palm Beach County Charities during the 10th Annual Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments® (GCC), on Saturday, February 2. Holy Ground Shelter for the Homeless took home $150,000 as the lion’s share of the $1.3 million in prize money on offer after their team of riders David Blake, Carly Dvorkin, and Madelyn Ruskin, along with team sponsor Pine Hollow and corporate sponsor Havensafe Farm, took the victory.

Great Charity Challenge pairs riders with Palm Beach County nonprofits for 10th year

Great Charity Challenge pairs riders with Palm Beach County nonprofits for 10th year

With a “We Are The World” theme, riders and fans represented their favorite countries at the 10th annual Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments, which took over the Winter Equestrian Festival’s Saturday Night Lights event in Wellington for 26 good causes.

Teams made up of junior and amateur riders competing against professionals were paired with Palm Beach County charities that were randomly selected at events leading up to the Feb. 2 grand finale with a total of $1.3 million up for grabs.

New program seeks to recruit Palm Beach County foster parents

New program seeks to recruit Palm Beach County foster parents

WEST PALM BEACH — On her “war wall” inside an office at the Palm Beach County Courthouse, Diana Reese keeps track of her outreach efforts on behalf of the newly created #Foster Palm Beach program.

Using sticky notes, the county’s new centralized foster home recruiter lists contacts, resources, meetings and other information pertinent to #Foster Palm Beach.

The program, created last fall by the nonprofit Speak Up for Kids of Palm Beach County, Inc., through a Children’s Services Council Great Ideas Initiative grant, strives to recruit foster parents in Palm Beach County.

Daylight Detox & Recovery Center Shines as a Light of Hope this Holiday Season for Children in Need

Daylight Detox & Recovery Center Shines as a Light of Hope this Holiday Season for Children in Need

Daylight Detox & Recovery Center Shines as a Light of Hope this Holiday Season for Children in Need

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Dec. 6, 2018 /PRNewswire-PRWeb/ -- Daylight Detox & Recovery Center is giving back this holiday season by partnering with "Speak Up for Kids Palm Beach". The nonprofit serves 1500 children countywide who are in the foster care system. Daylight not only works to break the stigma of addiction, but is also fighting against the stigma that surrounds local treatment centers.

"With all the media attention on local treatment centers not doing the right thing, we are taking steps daily to show the public that there are treatment facilities out here every day working hard to be a positive influence. Daylight is saving and creating new lives for those who suffer from drug and alcohol abuse disorders every day." stated, Tierney Steiginga, the Marketing Director for Daylight Detox and Recovery Center. 

Not only is Daylight taking it upon themselves to give back, but they are calling on other addiction treatment centers in which they have business relationships to join them. 

"Not only do we want to give back, but we want to encourage all of those who work with us to be a part of this holiday drive. Most of the children who are in the foster care system have parents who struggle with substance abuse issues." Jason Tuszynski informed us. He represents the Business Strategy Team for Daylight Detox & Recovery Center
If you wish to be a part of Daylight's Holiday Gift Card Drive, they are accepting Gift Cards at their Administration Office until December 12, 2018. The office is located at Suite 305 631 US Highway 1, North Palm Beach, FL 33408. If you prefer mail, send to attn: Marketing Office, Daylight Detox & Recovery Center 631 US Highway 1, Suite 305 North Palm Beach, FL 33408. They are specifically targeting children 11-18. Suggestions for gift cards include clothing stores, Target, Walmart, Visa/Mastercard Gift Cards. Any and all is appreciated. 

For more information or for an exclusive interview with the Daylight Team contact Tierney Steiginga at tierney(at) or call (330) 921-1291.

Speak Up for Kids: Giving foster children a voice - PALM BEACH POST

Speak Up for Kids: Giving foster children a voice - PALM BEACH POST

What does Speak Up for Kids do?

Speak Up for Kid’s goal is to support the Guardian ad Litem program to provide all abused, abandoned or neglected children in Palm Beach County’s dependency system with a court-appointed volunteer that advocates for their best interests. This helps ensure that children do not get lost in an overburdened legal and social service system.

How does your agency benefit the community?

Our agency benefits the community as it provides local organizations the opportunity to be part of a positive change in a child’s life. We assist children during the most crucial developmental years of their lives, which drives them to become contributing members to the community by breaking the negative cycles and creating ones that are more positive. Our agency also benefits the community as we provide members with the opportunity to volunteer and be a voice for these vulnerable children. Research has proven that our program has continuous positive effects such as finding safe and permanent homes, allowing participation in extracurricular activities and improved academics and behavior for these children.

What is your agency’s focus for the future?

To reach 100 percent advocacy for all abused and neglected children in the Palm Beach County Dependency System.

How can the community help?

Community members can help by selflessly devoting their time, patience and tenderness to these vulnerable children. Become a Guardian ad Litem volunteer at; help provide resources by making a monetary donation at; donate gift cards of any denomination; or volunteer time to help with fundraising, outreach, PR or general office help.