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 Party, an 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.