Children's advocates: Remember the kids

Fresh from briefings indicating that Florida ranks near the bottom of many lists that measure children's health and welfare, participants in the Florida Conference's annual Advocacy Days marched on the Capitol Tuesday to let lawmakers know the state needs to do better.

It was the culmination of three days of prayer, learning about issues that impact children in the state and lobbying lawmakers to take action on their behalf. 

Hanging of the Hands Children's Week 2013
Florida United Methodists helped hang artwork bearing children's handprints from across the state as part of Florida Advocacy Days. Photo by Rex Adams.

Sandi Vaughn, a member of First UMC, Kissimmee, and board member of United Methodist Association of Preschools, attended the event for the first time.

"It was a great experience and something I would do again," she said. Vaughn said she has been involved in accreditation for United Methodist preschool programs in Florida for 20 years, and child care providers are seeing firsthand the mounting problems of hunger, homelessness and lack of health insurance discussed during the event.

Tammy Fisher, who worked with the nonprofit organization Florida Impact to coordinate the event for the conference, said about 90 people turned out for the effort, including a contingent from the Florida African Methodist Episcopal Church. She said she was pleased with the positive response from participants.

"We had a lot of new people," she said. "I think people learned a lot. It can definitely be overwhelming." 

Rick Bennett, interim director of Justice and Outreach Ministries for the conference, praised Fisher's work and said she has helped put the event in a position for future organizers to build on.

"We're hoping to open it up to other denominations and groups," he said. 

Bishops Carter and Richardson at Florida Advocacy Days news conference
Bishop Adam Jefferson Richardson Jr., left, of the Florida African Methodist Episcopal Church listens as Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida United Methodist Church makes a point at Florida Advocacy Days. Photo by Rex Adams.

Bishops Ken Carter, Florida Conference, and Adam Jefferson Richardson Jr. of the 11th Episcopal District of the AME Church, led prayer and spoke at a news conference Tuesday on the steps of the Capitol. Carter scheduled a Florida Conference Cabinet meeting this week in Tallahassee and encouraged members to participate in the advocacy effort.

Vaughn and other Methodists attending the event plied legislators' aides with literature encouraging them to take advantage of federal incentives to expand Medicaid coverage for children and support the state's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, as a safety net for families in poverty.

They also encouraged lawmakers to support affordable housing programs.

Florida Advocacy Days coincides with Children's Week in Florida, which kicks off each year with the "Hanging of the Hands" in the Capitol rotunda. Volunteers hang streamers of artwork bearing handprints of Florida children submitted from across the state.

Vaughn said she found that to be the most moving part of the Florida Advocacy Days program.

"We actually helped hang them all," she said. "That was really amazing, getting to touch them [handprints] and reading the children's names." 

It's too soon to look for new legislation as a measure of the effectiveness of the event, said Rev. Beth Fogle-Miller, director of Connectional Ministries at the Florida Conference. But she said she was pleased to see United Methodist Women, representatives from the Florida United Methodist Children's Home, volunteers from UMC summer feeding sites and several outreach agency directors also turn out to support the effort.

She said Bishop Carter's message emphasized "that sense of wanting for all of the children what any of us want for our own."

In one of his "tweets" on the Children's Week Twitter feed, Carter reported from a briefing by Florida Supreme Court Justice James Perry: "Fla ranks in the bottom third in every measure of child well-being." 

Bishop Carter speaks to crowd at news conference
Bishop Ken Carter addresses a crowd at a Children's Week news conference on the Capitol steps. Photo by Rex Adams.

Also contributing to the Twitter feed were Rev. Rinaldo "Rini" Hernandez, South West District superintendent, and Rev. Tim Smiley, North East District superintendent. Both were in the Cabinet meeting Wednesday and could not be reached for an interview.

"Collaboration across denominational lines to end child hunger in FL is imperative," Hernandez said via Twitter.

Smiley said by email Wednesday: "The FAD training and visits with legislators and committees were important training, effective advocacy and a lot of fun working side by side with our AME brothers and sisters."

-- Susan Green is the editor of the Florida Conference Connection.

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