In the Tampa Bay area hundreds of children are without a forever home.
But Kathryn Melendez and her family are trying to put a dent in those numbers.
To say Melendez has a passion for kids is an understatement. She has 14 total: Five biological children, three adopted and six foster. Driving around in a big van is her only option.
“I call it controlled chaos,” she said.
Olivia Saroukos and Natalia Negron are two of her six foster daughters who have all been living with her for the past year. They range in age from 14 to 17 years old.
“It’s actually the most normal setting I’ve ever been in,” Saroukos said.
As they set the dining table, the life they’re living now is much different from where they came from.
Each were taken from their homes by court order. Some like Natalia are separated from their brothers and sisters. Natalie was separated from her four sisters.
At 14 she’s been in and out of the system for years.
“I just felt like everyone who came in tried to be my mom. It was like there’s no way you can be my mom,” she said.
Melendez’s focus is on teenagers, who are often the hardest to adopt out. The need is especially great in the Tampa Bay area.
We checked and learned there are 300 kids in foster care in Hillsborough County and 200 in Pasco and Pinellas, all without a permanent place to call their own.
“There’s such a stigma attached to them that they’re all bad, all vandals, going to rob and steal from you,” Melendez said. “It’s amazing what you can get out of them; the love, respect and the ability to want to change when they know someone is in their corner rooting for them.”
Kathryn said she builds lasting relationships with the teens she fosters, taking them from victims of abuse, neglect and abandonment and giving them a sense of normalcy. With her, these teens get the opportunity to get driving permits, jobs and caught up on school credits to graduate on time. It’s her way of showing love and support.
“I want them to be able to, when they get out on their own, have all this stuff in place so that they can provide for themselves.” Melendez said.
Other kids in foster care are placed in group homes through organizations partnering with Eckerd, the agency providing foster care in the bay area. Kathryn’s advice to others thinking of fostering teens is to stick with it.
“You can’t go in and say I want to try it out. It’s not fair to the child for them to have to do one more placement because you were not committed to taking a teenager,” Melendez said.
For Negron and Saroukos, with a new outlook on life their goal is to succeed.
“I want to be a role model for my sisters,” Negron said.
“You just need someone to put you on the right path. We just need to know someone is there and they love us and that’s who Kathryn is to us,” Saroukos said.
Saroukos said after she graduates from high school she wants to enroll in Hillsborough Community College for two years and then transfer to a university to get a medical degree in plastic surgery and a minor in psychology.
Once a teen ages out of the system there are still resources they can use like an independent living young adult program provided by Eckerd.
If you’d like to learn more or are interested in helping a teen in foster care click here.