WEST PALM BEACH Palm Beach County’s largest child welfare organization is working to recruit and train new foster families so children don’t have to be moved far away, and siblings can be kept together.

Now, Place of Hope has expanded its foster care recruitment into Martin County with a new satellite office in Hobe Sound.

HT5C0186During May, Foster Care Awareness Month, Place of Hope will join organizations to shine attention on the need for more adults to become involved. Officials want people to get involved at any level to help children who are taken from their homes due to abuse, neglect and/or abandonment. On May 20, the Place of Hope staff and supporters will converge upon the Leighan and David Rinker Campus to dedicate the newly named campus and hold a ribbon cutting for two newly renovated buildings and a kids’ sport court. The event will include a BBQ, tours of the cottages and an opportunity to learn how to get involved to make a difference in the lives of the children.

In January, 118 boys and girls entered the foster care system in Palm Beach County, bringing the number to 1,139. When there is not enough space to accommodate these children, they are moved out of county, away from familiar schools, family and friends. In January, 101 children were placed outside of the county.

Numbers like these are not new to the staff of Place of Hope.

Veteran foster parents Gary and Odalys Kitchings say fostering primarily takes a strong partnership and willingness for participants to do their best.

For more than 19 years, the Kitchings have raised their two children and they estimate about 100 others through Place of Hope and other agencies. What they thought would be a three-year commitment will soon reach two decades. At times, they’ve been parents to 10 to 12 children at once.

“As a couple, we decided we wanted to do something together when we got pregnant with our second child,” said Gary, a U.S. Navy veteran. “We thought we would move on to something else, but there was always another child that we wanted to be there for and wanted to see them age out at the age of 18.”

For those who are considering becoming foster parents, Gary and Odalys offer this advice – make sure your marriage is solid and that your reasons are sound.

“The children will not always appreciate the home you’re trying to provide. Sometimes they are angry at being taken from their home, or they are separated from family members. They can be resentful or afraid. The rewards don’t always show up right away,” Gary said. “But we have so many success stories when they grow up and realize what we did for them. Having a home where there is consistent care and attention, structure and accountability, role-modeling and siblings, makes a huge difference. We show them how to live a love-filled life, and that’s what they go on to do.”

kitchings_familyFor Place of Hope foster parent and trainer, Jenni O’Neal, potential foster parents need one vital characteristic.

“Commitment is the number one attribute, and that is what I look for when I meet with potential foster parents,” O’Neal said. “I look for their willingness to persevere through the hard times. Can you do what it takes to keep doing what it takes?”

Hobe Sound residents, O’Neal and her husband, Travis, have been foster parents for 10 years. Additionally, O’Neal has the new responsibility of recruiting and training new foster parents in Martin County for Place of Hope.

In this role, she assists and educates potential parents through the state-regulated process, which includes home study, home visits, references and background checks. After seven years of doing this work in Palm Beach County, she is excited to introduce the satisfaction and love of foster parenting to Martin County.

To date, the O’Neals, who have three children of their own and are expecting a fourth, have fostered more than 30 children and counting.  Jenni O’Neal says they try to keep the relationship going. She and her husband have been to high school graduations, visited college campuses and talk weekly with some of the young people they have cared for.

“One young man was there when my oldest child was born seven years ago,” O’Neal said. “He is a part of our family until this day, and we are very close.”