Great Oaks Village Helps Children in Foster Care Establish New Roots
For 93 years, Orange County has been home to Great Oaks Village (GOV), one of the most historic residential foster group homes for children and young adults in the state. Located just outside downtown Orlando, most driving by the campus of small quaint cottages and large Florida oak trees would never know that GOV is home to as many as 60 children, teens and young adults on any given day.
Children come to Great Oaks Village for many different reasons, but share one common theme – circumstances beyond their control led them to need a place of safety and protection outside of their family home.
“I cannot imagine what would happen to these young people if it were not for the important work at Great Oaks Village,” said Orange County Mayor Jerry L. Demings. “As a former Orlando Police Chief and Orange County Sheriff, I have witnessed firsthand the need for a safe place for our most vulnerable citizens.”
They come in the middle of the night, sometimes with just the clothes on their back. They may stay for a few hours, or years. They all have a story. While the staff at Great Oaks Village cannot change what brought them there, their goal is to help them find their way, establishing new roots on perhaps an unexpected path.
John Miracle, 20, has lived at Great Oaks Village since he was 15. Although his experience growing up may be very different from some of his friends, he says GOV saved his life.
“It’s part of who I am, where I’ve been. It molded me into the better person I am today,” Miracle said.
The majority of children living at GOV have experienced or witnessed abuse. After being removed from these situations, the next steps vary. Some return home once their families are healthy again; some will connect with relatives; some will be adopted and start new families; others will stay and go on to become healthy adults; a handful remain through college. Children who exit foster care on their 18 birthday are eligible for free college tuition through Florida schools and other support – as long as they keep working and going to school.
Keeping watch over the children of GOV is an incredible team led by Dr. Tracy Salem who has been with the program for 15 years. While as many as 2,000 children may come through GOV’s doors each year, Dr. Salem and her team feel strongly that each and every child deserves the care, kindness, compassion and attention that they would give their own children.
“Oh yes, we go to football games; we pack the stands to cheer for our players,” Salem said. “We have girls in color guard. There are tons of birthdays and sleepovers.”
At one time, children in foster care could not spend the night with friends without a background check or court order. Teaching a child to drive, hanging out with friends alone, and going to the prom – were events that were not always permitted under traditional child protective service agencies.
This year, John will be the first young adult at Great Oaks Village to ever have a car. When initially told no, he pled his case and won. Through his hard work and efforts, he was able to save money for the costs. As a student at Valencia College he travels back and forth between classes, work and home. He has a valid license and stays out of trouble. Soon, John will have his own car on campus, gain additional independence and will follow the same restrictions most parents place on new and young drivers.
“Now, as Florida’s foster care system fully embraces the philosophy of normalcy, we [GOV] can make decisions very similar to how we do with our own children. I ask them the same questions I ask my own kids when deciding what’s appropriate for them to do and where to go. It’s what a parent does – Who’s going to be there? What are you doing? When are you coming back?” Salem said.
Salem acknowledges that the holidays can be a bit tough for these kids, but GOV takes extra care to ensure that personal gifts are selected, wish lists are crossed off, and days filled with activities.
For many kids, there is also the opportunity to spend time and reconnect or establish new connections with family members or loved ones, if it’s in their best interest. The support of several major donors and Orange County personnel helps to brighten not just the holidays for these kids, but help spread joy throughout the year.
Featured Photo: Orange County Youth and Family Services Division Manager Dr. Tracy Salem joins John Miracle (left), age 20, and Mikha’el Crozier (right), age 19, on the grounds of Great Oaks Village – both are enrolled in the Independent Living Program, which promotes continued education and employment for young adults previously in foster care.