A new program established by Central Florida’s premier child welfare agency gives a former foster child a new lease on life.
For Amelia Rios, second chances mean everything. Growing up in Sanford as a ward of the state and then placed in a foster home at age 17, Amelia’s life has been everything but stable. But even after a failed relationship that took her to the state of Washington and gave her two sons, her tenacity never subsided. Amelia returned home to Sanford and rented a basic apartment, but she still needed help.
“The apartment never felt like home,” says Amelia. “No curtains, no family meal table, no dressers.”
She also had a hard time sleeping in her bed – just a box spring and mattress stacked on the floor.
“Unlike many of us, Amelia had no parental assistance to lean on when settling into her first place,” says Shannon Harding, network support manager for Embrace Families, the agency formerly known as Community Based Care of Central Florida. The child welfare organization serves more than 3,000 children a day by providing foster care, adoption, mentoring, and youth-transitional services.
Prior to meeting Amelia, Shannon and her team began to realize the need for a service to help former foster children transition to an independent life, one void of shopping trips and handyman help with mom and dad. From that seed, the Inspired Living Program was born, and Amelia was the perfect candidate for the program’s first total apartment makeover.
“Amelia is an amazing mom,” says Shannon. “She works two jobs to support her family. She just needed help decorating and organizing.”
When word of the initiative reached Winter Park Construction (WPC), the company jumped on board.
“We build communities every day, but it’s our service, volunteering, and support of projects like Inspired Living we are most proud of,” says Charlie Cecil, WPC’s director of renovation and special projects.
After months of planning and coordinating, Shannon, her coworkers, their spouses, and Charlie himself spent a weekend in December turning the apartment that Amelia says she was once ashamed of into a place the family of three could call a home. The entire apartment was redecorated while Amelia and her boys – Jaylen (6) and Jiovanni (4) – spent the weekend relaxing at a Disney hotel. They were brought home on Sunday afternoon for the big reveal.
“It was like an HGTV show,” beams Shannon.
The family walked into a completely renovated space, which included updated lighting, a table for dining, new dressers, reorganized closets, wall decorations, toy storage space, and, for the first time, a real bed for Amelia, complete with headboard.
The makeover coincidentally came at a time when Amelia had reached a crossroads. She turned 23 in 2018, meaning she was no longer eligible for funds or state services through the foster system that helped raised her. But she was ready to move forward.
“Turning 23 is just a new chapter of my life, full of positive opportunities and chances to show people that I am a success,” Amelia posted on her Facebook page last April on her birthday.
About the same time, Shannon and her team reached out to Amelia and invited her and the boys to dinner. They had never met one another. Shannon proceeded to tell Amelia about the Inspired Living Program.
“I was nervous, and I was embarrassed about my place,” Amelia recalls. “I was never expecting this, and I think they were more excited than I was.”
Based on the success of the first Embrace Families foray into this independent transformation, Shannon says the nonprofit organization will be using Amelia’s home as a blueprint moving forward – and they want Amelia to be a part of that process.
“We watch movies and eat dinner together now,” Amelia says with her arms wrapped around her boys. “There is more organization, and the kids are sleeping in their own room. Before, I never wanted to be here or have people come over. I am so happy now.
“And I sleep so much better in a real bed.”
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