In the early 20th century, Wesley House Family Services was a settlement program established by the Methodist Church to help Cuban immigrants transition into a new life in Key West. The ministry included a kindergarten to teach English to Cuban children and prepare them for public school.
Transitions are still a big part of Wesley House’s mission, though the settlement program is history. And, though the church and Wesley House are no longer directly linked, a strong bond remains as local churches, ministries and the Florida Conference's United Methodist Women (UMW) often reach out financially and through service projects to support the now private, not-for-profit organization.
Over the years, Wesley House has redirected its services to at-risk families living in the Florida Keys. Among its community partners are the Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Guardian Ad Litem, the Agency for Workforce Intervention, and the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.
"Our mission is to promote and ensure the safety and well-being of children," says Jeremy Wilkerson, Wesley House community relations manager.
Wesley House will be this year's recipient of gifts at Mission u, an annual event sponsored by the conference's UMW. The gathering will be held July 10-13 at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Men, women and children of all ages are welcome. Registrations postmarked by June 26 will receive a $10 discount. For registration forms and information, click here.
UMW chapters will donate school supplies, backpacks and personal items for welcome kits that Wesley House gives to children when they enter into foster care. Among needed items are tote bags for clothes, blankets, decks of cards, puzzle books, deodorant, journals and writing pads. For a complete list, click here.
There currently are about 11 beds available in Monroe County for foster children.
"It's never enough," Wilkerson says.
In some instances, children must be housed temporarily in shelters in Miami. And providing the support and care to children who have been removed from their homes is often the toughest part of Wesley House's mission.
"It's a big disruption to them and unfortunately it is often in the middle of the night. … It's devastating to children," Wilkerson says. "They may not have diapers or wipes. Whatever they have often comes in a trash bag."
The welcome kits offer a way to help ease children's fears by giving them something they need and can call their own. A teddy bear, for instance, can be a distraction for a confused toddler who doesn't understand what is happening.
Ja Good is a foster parent and employee with Healthy Families-Monroe, one of Wesley House's programs. She knows firsthand what the welcome kits mean.
"They give them [children] a piece of stability, even if most people would look at it as something inconsequential," Good says. "We are all so appreciative when people in the community are willing to make a contribution in a way that helps our children."
Wesley House Family Services has three offices in the Florida Keys to serve an area that stretches more than 200 miles from Key West to Key Largo. In Key West, Wesley House's main office is on Truman Street. Programs also are provided there, as well as at Habana Plaza Center and the Inez Martin Child Development Center.
The geography of the Keys is part of the challenge of delivering services when families are so spread out through the county, Good says. The sputtering economy has increased the need for services, she adds.
"It's not unusual to have a teacher who waits tables at night," Good says. "It puts added stresses on families."
Wilkerson says all of Wesley House's programs, including foster care, have a single goal of strengthening and uniting families.
Aggie Reed, the new president of Florida’s UMW, is a former Wesley House board member. She said Mission u, in addition to providing study opportunities, provides UMW members and guests a chance to collectively aid a charitable organization that helps children.
“Local (UMW) units also help at times when they become aware of the need for repairs or other needs at Wesley House," she adds.
Florida UMW Mission u attendees alternate between giving to Wesley House and Cornerstone Family Ministries in Tampa.
Wesley House first became a private charity in the mid-1940s. Three decades later, it established the area's first childcare center for working parents. An infant care program followed and, in the late 1980s, Wesley House became Monroe County's lead agency for coordinating licensed childcare services. In 2005, it began managing the county's Voluntary Prekindergarten program.
Wesley House also was chosen to manage the child welfare system in the Florida Keys when the program was privatized. Those services include family support and prevention services for families in crisis; case management for children at risk of harm or neglect; and foster and adoptive family recruitment, as well as training and support services when a child is removed from a home.
The Healthy Families-Monroe program was created to foster positive parent-child relationships for expectant and new families.
"It teaches them what to expect while raising children," Wilkerson says. "That's a pretty big commitment."
The not-for-profit is one of 1,300 social service organizations to be accredited by the International Council of Accreditation.
-- Kathy Steele is a freelance writer based in Tampa.