A chance at family - The Explorer: Import

A chance at family

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Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

November 15, 2006 - Editor's Note: Because of the violent conditions and parents some of the foster children endured, GAP Ministries has requested the children not be identified or the location of the 10 GAP Ministries homes revealed.

At 2:54 p.m., Michelle Franco ran her finger down and across a photocopied chart hung on the refrigerator door.

"Wednesday," she said, reading the menu aloud, "cereal and milk."

Franco strolled over to the pantry and filled her arms with Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Dora the Explorer cereal for the day's snack. She set them in the middle of a banquet-style table with seating for 14.

Within moments, four or five kids shuffled through the door, filling the house with excited banter about school, boring teachers, good grades and upcoming field trips. The children kissed Franco and her husband Joel hello, tossed their lunch boxes on the counter and took a seat at the table.

Twenty minutes later, a second shift of middle and high schoolers strolled through the door, though a bit louder.

And just when it seemed that no more children could possibly live in this house, a few stragglers who missed the bus trot through the door, piling into the living room and kitchen.

It flows like clockwork. Off the bus, in the house, snack, chat about the day, then onto homework, and, finally play time - all before dinner.

In a well-decorated stucco house, with Mom and Dad leading the charge, the Franco's family looks more like a multi-ethnic Brady Bunch than what it really is - a GAP Ministries group home for foster kids who've suffered traumatic physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their parents. The Francos don't know if it will make a difference in the long run, but while the children live in GAP home No. 9, the Francos are giving them a taste of their idea of a normal family.

GAP Ministries - a faith-based, non-profit in Northwest Tucson -started in 1999 to try to give kids stuck in the flux of the foster system a chance to have a true, loving family.

The children who live in the Franco's home, and the nine other GAP Ministries group homes, were removed from their parent's custody for one or more of the following: they were beaten with objects - sometimes broomsticks or clothing hangers - they endured sexual molestation or were forced to watch while others engaged in sex, they witnessed drug use or they were forced to be the parent to younger brothers and sisters when their parent was nowhere to be found.

GAP is different than any group home in Tucson and most across the state. Instead of being run by shift workers, it's run by house parents who work to create an impromptu family in fancy homes near Oro Valley.

"My experience with GAP, and I've had a lot of kids placed there, has been phenomenal because even though they're technically group homes, they're family models, centered on the parents," said Chuck Lagatutta, an attorney who represents parents and children for Pima County Juvenile Court. "Every kid I've had placed there has done incredibly well."

It's designed to be a temporary home until parents can reunite with their children or Child Protective Services can find new, permanent homes for the children.

After feeling a message from God telling them to do something more meaningful with their lives, Pam and Greg Ayers founded GAP - "God Answers Prayers" - or as one comedic foster child put it: "Got a Parent?"

They abandoned their six-figure-a-year jobs and moved from Utah to Tucson to start group foster homes. In six years they've purchased 10 homes, called SPLASH houses, which stands for Spiritually-Powered-Love-Aggressively Shaping Hearts.

They recruit other devout Christians like themselves, most from out of state, to also quit their jobs and follow them. House parents say they're compensated well and get great benefits.

House parents don't have degrees in social work or psychology; the only real requirements are that they seem like good parents and can pass a background check.

Juvenile court caseworkers, lawyers, and Child Protective Services employees consider GAP's new group home model widely successful. Foster care advocates from other states have even come to Tucson to tour GAP properties, hoping to copy the concept to other cities. And Pam Ayers, though not intending to expand GAP further in Tucson, has considered expanding elsewhere.

Part of the reason GAP has been able to survive is because Ayers knows how to stretch a dollar. GAP operates with a roughly $2.7 million annual budget, drawing funding from the state based upon how many children it houses. Through the National School Lunch Program, it receives government commodities and free lunches.

It also solicits donations from private businesses, which drew $71,000 in gifts last year alone. It reaps benefits from Wal-Mart, Office Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Talbot's clothing store.

The budget covers everything from food, clothes and 15-passenger vans for each house, to staff salaries, cell phones and vacations to Disneyland - every family is required to take a weeklong family vacation.

Back in the Franco house on an October afternoon, Michelle and Joel are flexible but keep the family structured and disciplined.

Because GAP accepts some government food, when cooking or serving a snack like with the cereal, Michelle must follow a regimented meal schedule.

They eat meals together, do homework and chores, go to church and take trips.

But the Francos say they must also base the rules on love and support, something Joel said many of the kids haven't received before.

It's little things, like when one pre-teen moaned about wanting to fit into a pair of new pants. Joel replied, "You will, just keep riding your bike."

Joel said giving love and support 24-7 isn't always easy.

Some of the foster kids talk back to him and curse at him, he said. Michelle said they have to deal with bedwetting from a 14-year-old and fight to try to keep two other boys from playing their handheld videogames for hours at a time.

Joel admitted that running around trying to keep up with how well nine extra kids do in school, when they need to take medicine or make sure they get to therapy appointments on time is stressful and exhausting.

He and Michelle moved from Denver to work for GAP about a year ago. Although the job pays more than the family used to make, he said he doesn't know how long he will be able to do it.

"I'm tired today. I'm not going to lie," Joel said, as he watched kids play outside on a late afternoon. "I could use a nap."

The Ayers realize the job is stressful and give the parents four days respite away from the kids every five weeks.

The biggest problem, the couple said, is the affect on their family. Michelle said her three biological children had trouble making friends after moving to Tucson as well as sharing their parents with nine other strangers.

She said the children often talk about wanting to go back to Denver. In fact, the mere mention of Denver immediately caught the Franco's youngest daughter Jacqueline's attention and her eyes lit up.

"Are we going back?" she asked. Then she went on to explain how much she missed her grandparents.

They may very well go back to Denver soon. Most house parents, including Michelle and Joel, plan to stay only about two years.

Other GAP families encounter the same problems. In SPLASH 1, another massive, nicely-decorated home with a guesthouse and pool on the northern outskirts of Oro Valley, Gerald and Bobbie Flores run the family with the same principals as the Francos.

They have nine foster kids who bunk up with two of the Flores's biological kids who still live at home. They said they want to give the foster kids a chance at life with a two-parent, loving family.

"I'm not their real Dad," Gerald said. "I tell them that, but I want to be that father figure. I hug them when they need a hug and help them with their homework."

But creating that atmosphere for the foster kids can take something away from her own children, Bobbie admitted.

Choking back tears, Bobbie Flores said, "Gavin, my son, that's who it's hardest on. Sometimes it breaks my heart. They have to see their parents love on other children."

But Bobbie and Gerald agree that the situation in the long run will benefit their kids.

"The kids learn how to give," Bobbie said. "They learn how to share a bedroom. It teaches them, makes them stronger people."

At another GAP house, 13-year-old Haley Uptown lives with her parents Jeremy and Kelly Uptown. She perhaps is an example of on whom the GAP lifestyle is hardest.

"At times, I want to go back to Seattle," Haley said. She and her family moved from Washington to work for GAP. "It's hard. I have to share everything. I share my grandparents, my bedroom, my bathroom, my clothes."

It's hard on her younger brothers, too, Haley said. She said her 8-year-old brother used to sit with her father when they watched movies, but now the foster kids, who they affectionately call "bonus kids," want to sit with him. "He feels like they're hogging his Dad," she said.

Haley gets scared when "bonus kids" fight with her parents and hit her brothers. She has seen some kids yell in her Dad's face and call him fat, which angers her.

"That's the reality of what we do," she said, with the reasoning of someone much older. "But my parents, they always talk to us about what they were going to do. They said, 'We got a job offer.' And we said, 'Yeah, we need to do this for God.' So we packed up our stuff and were here in a week."

At 13, Haley seems to understand the harsh reality of the "bonus" children's lives. She remembered a time when one girl in the house close to her age was upset because her mom didn't show up to a scheduled visit.

"We just sat in the beanbag chair and cried for like an hour," Haley said. "All I could do is be there."

But Haley has to remind herself why GAP exists. It's is a temporary home until kids can reunite with their own fractured families.

"We've got to love 'em while we've got 'em," she said sternly. "Because I don't want them to come back. I want them to be able to live with their parents."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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