Teens make a life at Joshua House
By Sarah Whitman
Senior Staff Writer
LUTZ — Imagine being taken from your home in the middle of the night and told you have to live in a strange place with people you don’t know. Imagine arriving with nothing but the clothes on your back and haunting memories from a life you did not choose.
Kelly Akerly, executive director of the Joshua House, has seen this story play out again and again, as teen girls are brought to live in the residential care facility. Because there is a lack of options for older children within the system, 75 percent of the residents at Joshua House are girls ages 13 to 17.
“These girls come to us with basically nothing,” Akerly said. “They’ve been through a traumatic situation, and we want to give them as normal a life as possible. It’s a challenge, but we work really hard to improve their lives.”
Joshua House began housing teen girls two years ago, after a study by the non-profit organization Hillsborough Kids showed a need for more teen housing. Currently, 21 girls are divided between two houses on the Joshua House property, located off Hanna Avenue in Lutz. The facility, operated by the Children’s Home Society of Florida, opened in 1992 and serves Hillsborough County.
Teen girls live in houses with six bedrooms, two girls to a room, and a shared living area.
They ride the bus to school, to either Liberty Middle School or Freedom High School in New Tampa. They have dinner together, watch television and do homework before turning in around 10 p.m. Some follow the rules. Others push the envelope.
“They are teenagers,” Akerly said. “The act like teenagers. I tell my staff it’s not like with the little kids where they see an adult and automatically respect you. With the teen girls, you have to earn their respect.”
Christina Wallace, the staff’s lead clinical psychologist, works with the girls to improve self-esteem and address past wounds.
“Many of the girls have trust issues,” Wallace said. “It takes a while to build a report with them. They’ve been exposed to so much. They’ve been abused, some of them have been in and out of foster care; some are the victims of crimes.”
Most of the teens come from domestic violence and were neglected. Joshua House provides them with clothes, school supplies, food and other life essentials. What the residents wear or eat depends on the generosity of others.
“If people want to know how they can help, more than anything, donations are always needed,” said development director Michelle Turman. “We need even the most basic items.”
While volunteer opportunities are available for groups interested in painting houses or assisting with large projects, the Joshua House rarely opens it doors for volunteers to work one-on-one with residents.
“People have the best intentions but they have to understand these girls don’t need more people coming in and out of their lives,” Akerly said. “We don’t want someone to come be a mentor for a couple months and then disappear, doing more harm than good. The girls are real people and we are sensitive to that.”
Staff members at Joshua House work with the county to find the best possible options for teen residents. Adoption is often preferred but most families looking to adopt are not willing to tackle the challenges associated with older children.
“It takes a special kind of person to adopt a teen,” Wallace said. “They have a whole different view of the world. They aren’t as innocent as the little kids and not everyone knows how to deal with a teen in this type of situation.”
For older teens, Joshua House is usually the last step before they go out on their own. Wallace encourages the girls to find jobs to prepare them for the next step but said, these days, jobs are difficult to find.
“The girls have been out looking for jobs but there just aren’t a lot out there right now,” she said. “They just keep putting in applications.”
The Joshua House provides teens with a weekly allowance so they can stop by a fast food place or go to a movie. Resident’s activities must be approved prior to a trip off campus. Still, girls are encouraged to go to friend’s houses, attend football games and participate in extracurricular activities.
“We want the girls to have the best life experience possible,” site manager Tallulah Held said.
Held is one of the on-site employees working to keep the overall household running smoothly. While no employees live on campus, there is 24-hour shift coverage. Care workers look after girls in their individual houses, where bedrooms are plastered with pictures on the walls and beds sometimes go unmade. Cooks prepare meals and bring them to the homes so girls can chat around the big dinner table. Counselors are available in times of emotional distress and keep conversations confidential.
After school hours, the Joshua House gates are closed and locked to permit unscreened visitors from interfering with the residents’ lives.
“We have people call and ask us if they can come bring their children to see what its like at Joshua House so they know how good they have it,” Akerly said. “I know they mean well, but seriously, we aren’t a zoo. Our residents are leading daily lives here.”
Wallace said the best thing the public can do to help is to support the Joshua House itself. They can donate items fitting for the typical teenager, a gesture to make life in a residential facility more like life anywhere else.
“Like any teenagers, the girls want to go out, have fun and be trendy,” Wallace said. “For a lot of them, living here is temporary but it is their last home before they go into the world. We want to prepare them for the world the best we can.”
The Joshua House donation center is located at 1515 Michelin Court in Lutz. For more information on donating or on adoption, call (813) 949-8946.
Teens wish list
- Teen girl clothing
- Make up sets
- Hair care products
- Tote bags
- Music CDs, etc.
- Cell phone minute cards
- Gift cards
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