SALADO — Garden of Hope Central Texas, a nonprofit, is seeking the community’s help to raise at least $25,000 to complete a transitional housing facility in Salado for foster care children in the area.
“Hope. These kids need hope,” said Wilfredo Ocasio of Killeen, executive director of Garden of Hope Central Texas. “They’ve often encountered trauma, so we want to provide a place where they can de-stress.”
Ocasio’s goal is to complete the interior remodeling and be ready to house children by spring break. Garden of Hope will be able to house around 20 children for 90 days or longer.
“I have had community partners express concerns regarding limited transitional housing for foster youth,” said Kelly M. Hardy, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Bell and Coryell counties. “From information provided on Garden of Hope by Mr. Ocasio, he has determined to address this concern.”
Transitional housing can sometimes be more than temporary.
“Based on their situations, kids often end up staying over a year,” Ocasio said.
Ocasio said teens tend to languish in the system.
“Once they find a place they like, where they’ve made friends in school, kids request to stay where they are until they age out of the system,” he said.
After adopting 11 foster care children and fostering 90 more, Ocasio has many years of experience navigating the system. He became a CASA volunteer in Bell and Coryell counties.
He also has ample experience navigating the best course to meet children’s needs.
“I’ve seen just about everything; I could write a book,” he said. “I’ve seen the emotions they go through when they lose their parents.”
It bothers Ocasio when children are labeled negatively just for being foster care kids.
“Just like your own kids, there are good and bad experiences being a foster parent,” Ocasio said. “The kids didn’t ask for what happened to them. They’ve been dealt that hand, and I hope we can make it better for them for awhile.”
Ocasio is certain there is a need for safe placement options as foster homes swell to capacity. More than 48,000 Texas children were in the child protection system in 2016, with more than 50 kids entering the foster care system daily, according to CASA.
“I saw the need and the situation the kids go through in the system,” Ocasio said. Multiple placements and a sense of uncertainty are hard enough, but when siblings are placed into separate homes, it can be emotionally devastating, he said.
“They can be placed in a different city, even a different county,” Ocasio said.
Ocasio decided it was time to help as many children as he could.
After a long negotiation, Ocasio said he landed the perfect place in Salado.
“It used to be a kid’s ministry retreat for a church,” Ocasio said of the 4,000 square-foot property. “It’s so gorgeous it’s crazy.”
With campfire rings, picnic areas, a porch, places to play and even a petting zoo, the environment deliberately will be different than facilities in which the children have resided in the past.
“It’s just a big house with adult staff members,” Ocasio said. “We want them to feel at home, to feel as normal as possible, to feel like it’s not so bad, to even make it enjoyable until the day they leave.”
The nonprofit will partner with child protective services the whole way, Ocasio said.
Part of the partnership will be as part of the DFPS (Texas Department of Family and Protective Services) PAL program (Preparation for Adult Living), which helps older foster care children develop skills they will need in the real world.
“We want to give them everything they need to succeed,” Ocasio said.
Ocasio emphasized that the kids come first in his organization.
“The money we raise goes directly to serving kids in Central Texas counties,” Ocasio said.
For more information about Garden of Hope Central Texas, visit www.gohctx.org. To learn more about how to adopt a child, visit the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services at www.dfps.state.tx.us.