BIG CYPRESS — Just inside the front doors of the newest Family Services facility in Big Cypress, kids ages 10 to 17 will find video games, a big screen TV, comfy leather sofas and a refrigerator packed with food.
But a deeper look into the 5,381-square-foot, eight-bedroom youth home reveals the heart and soul of the building.
“We need to bring troubled kids back home,” said Family Services Director Helene Buster. “If they can’t be reunited with their biological families, then they will have extended family right here.”
The Tribal community viewed the new facility Jan. 20 during an open house event. Informally called the Seminole Youth Home, the building will be dedicated with a permanent name later.
Buster said she began developing the idea about 10 years ago when she was made Tribal guardian for the affairs of two Seminole boys then housed in “therapeutic schools” in Texas.
Since then, she worked to acquire full support and complete funding from Tribal Council for an on-reservation transitional home where children in distress could attend school, participate in sports, go to church and live daily within the circle of their own people.
Two boys and one girl are already scheduled to move in within weeks.
The staff, led by youth home administrator Edgar Smith, is currently at four full-time employees but will grow as needs increase. Employees will rotate night and day schedules.
“There will be no sleeping during shifts here; we are awake staff,” said Mark McBride, the lead residential family teacher.
Designed with an open-floor kitchen, living room and dining space, the house encourages family living. A fully equipped open-door management office is coupled with a larger and private employee work space complete with full bath and bedroom furniture just in case circumstance requires extra staff to stay overnight.
All resident rooms – four for boys and four for girls – are furnished with a twin bed, night stand, student study desk, chest of drawers and dressing sinks with counters. In all the girls’ rooms, a pretty lace-lined rosebud vase, handmade by Family Services’ Hollywood administrative assistant Jacqueline Ventura, decorates each desk.
A laundry room features two washers and dryers plus space for clean towels and linens.
The staff aims to promote independent living skills. Simply, they will teach teens how to cook, clean the house and do their own laundry. Youth will also learn how to balance a budget, manage bills and eventually, if they stay up to age 18, set up their own homes.
“We want them to be able to take care of themselves when they leave here, whether they ‘age out’ at 18 years old or they leave way before then,” McBride said.
Besides, having the residents lend a hand in the kitchen, pick up after themselves and help out with household chores will create and then reinforce a nurturing family lifestyle.
“We want normalcy – not an institutional environment,” McBride said. The father of three is a graduate of Aurora University where he focused on sociology and psychology.
The residence sits on about a half-acre surrounded by natural vegetation and scattered landscape plants. A large screened-in porch will soon feature patio furniture and a pingpong table. A portable basketball hoop will be erected in the driveway “just like any home with any family,” Smith said.
At the kitchen table, seating for 10 invites more family togetherness.
Smith, with 22 years of experience in youth group facilities and a master’s in education from Florida State University, said the staff will not try to replace parents, but they will equip youth who have been removed from their parents with guidance toward the future.
“Our main values are mentoring, nurturing, guiding and being empathetic to them,” Smith said. “If a teen is able to leave this home as a better person and a contributing member of the community and the reservation, then I’ve served my purpose.”
Sticking to house rules will play a large part in the transition, Buster said. The youth will not be babied, but they will be cared for and loved because they will live within the community and be exposed daily to the Tribe’s culture.
“It’s the Tribe helping Tribal members,” Buster said. “I am not just the director here; I am a Tribal elder and I know the kids. They know me. I am already grandmom in so many ways and that, too, is what will make a difference.”