Meet three local women who use their unique talents to help area foster kids in need.
Foster care is a complex system designed to solve a complex problem. But the skills required to transform the life of a young child in the system’s care could not be more simple. It takes love, patience, and the unwavering belief that every child deserves a chance to be great. Isn’t it amazing, though, that when seeking men and women with these simple skills, foster care leaders often find those with an incredible array of other talents, all ready to put their passion to productive use to help children in need? There are hundreds of such men and women who give their time and their energy to help area foster children. These are only three, but the local women on these pages each bring a unique ability and perspective to the proverbial foster care table. They all help children; they all do it in different ways... and here are their stories:
“I plant a seed and hope it grows,” says Barbara Hughes when talking about her passion and love for children in foster care.
Barbara teaches basic life skills to teenagers who are close to aging out of Florida’s foster care system. In her day job, Barbara wears many hats as the Seminole County director of the Family and Consumer Sciences Extension, but her favorite role is that of teacher and friend to the foster children who take her courses.
“These are very basic things, like how to shake someone’s hand and how to make your own dinner,” Barbara explains. “When you’re looking at children who have been bounced around to different homes and come from some tough backgrounds, these are skills they need to make it on their own.“
Barbara says her type of work is not for the faint of heart, but instead for those who have a full heart to give.
“These children have been abused, taken advantage of, and then they look at me like, ‘Who is this crazy lady trying to teach me about a Crock-Pot,’” Barbara laughs. “I have to build a trust with them.”
Barbara started her program five years ago, and the stories she tells are heartwrenching.
“I have taken an 18-year-old out to eat and realized they had never been inside a restaurant before,” says Barbara, who lives in Sanford. “I’ve had to teach teenagers how to brush their teeth. All of these things we take for granted, but for these kids who don’t have a home, a role model, who is going to show them?”
Barbara’s students take the classes over the course of about five months. At the end of the program, Barbara rewards the teens with a celebration and $100 gift cards to buy an outfit for a job interview.
“These children are faceless,” says Barbara. “They are the kids sitting in class next to your kids, and you’d never know it. They want the same things we all want. They want to feel like they belong and like they are loved, and I hope we are teaching them the skills in my class to allow them to be self-sufficient and know their worth.”
“I cannot change the world, but I can help one child at a time,” Nikki Ludwig beams as she describes her family’s mission in foster care. As a foster mother, Nikki’s role is the most traditional and the most incredible.
Nikki started her journey 10 years ago with her husband John and their three biological children when they took twin baby girls into their home.
“Our lives grew, and our passion grew,” Nikki explains.
Nikki and her husband now have eight children living under one roof, ranging from 17 years old all the way down to 18 months.
With the boys in one room and the girls in the next, Nikki struggles to remember the last time she got a full night’s sleep. Yet, she gushes while saying she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. It’s my life’s calling,” says Nikki, who quickly adds, “But I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that foster parenting comes with a lot of heartache, a lot of tears.”
The Ludwigs have been foster parents to some children for a few weeks and others a few years. Along the way, they’ve adopted seven children who now call this their forever family.
“There are days I’m in my pajamas until 2:00 p.m.,” Nikki laughs, “but my greatest job is to give these kids a sense of belonging and make sure they know I’m not going anywhere.”
The Ludwig family home in Sanford is currently under construction to add three extra bedrooms. They’ve also purchased a 12-passenger van to keep up with their ever growing and changing family.
“Date nights sometimes consist of a Sam’s Club run,“ Nikki says with a smile, “but this is something your whole family has to be committed to doing.”
For Nikki, the rewards outweigh the hardships, and when asked what she’d say to someone considering opening their own home to foster children, Nikki’s eyes fill with tears.
“Follow your heart,” she says. “There is a huge need, and when you open your heart, you can open your home. We’ve changed these kids’ lives for the better, and they’ve certainly done the same for us.”
We’re used to seeing television anchor and Longwood resident Martha Sugalski giving us the news from the WFTV anchor desk. It’s a job that she knows comes with great responsibility.
“I feel lucky to have a voice in this community, so I want to use it to share the stories of these foster kids whose voices may otherwise not be heard,” Martha explains.
As a mother of six kids, including two-year-old triplets, Martha says foster children have always held a special place in her heart, especially those youngsters between the ages of 5 and 18, who are generally among the most difficult to place. She feels honored to tell the stories of children looking for an adoptive family in a popular WFTV series called Forever Family. The stories are broadcast every Thursday at 4:00 p.m. on WFTV Channel 9. Martha says it’s been her most cherished work as a journalist.
“We spend an afternoon with the kids, and we never talk about anything negative,” says Martha. “We don’t ask them about their past. We focus on who they are, what makes them special. One of my favorite questions to ask is how their friends would describe them. We really get to know them.”
Martha gets choked up talking about one interview she’ll never forget: a young man on his 16th birthday, and all he wanted was a mom or a dad.
“This kid didn’t get balloons or a cake, there wasn’t even any mention of it... There he sat, just wanting a family to call his own,” Martha recalls. “I go home and hug my own kids so tight after these interviews.”
But it is these interviews on Forever Family that have helped tremendously, not only in placing children with mentors, but in getting the word out to those who want to help.
“I think there’s a great misconception about who these kids are,” Martha says. “We had some of the foster children over to our house to do the interviews, and one looked at my family pictures on the wall and said, ‘Is that your son Maxwell?’ We got to talking, and this child was at Lake Mary High School with my son. I would have never known. I hope our stories keep raising that kind of awareness. These kids deserve it.”
This is Why They Do It
Every year, the community’s efforts combine to create foster care success stories on National Adoption Day, and this Sanford family is thrilled to give their new 13-year-old daughter a forever home
For all of her life, 13-year-old Jasmine has never had her own bedroom, never attended the same school for more than a year, and has been living away from all of her siblings.
But on November 20, 2015, that all changed. Jasmine’s uncle and aunt, Matthew and Jessica Brice, officially adopted her. Jasmine was reunited with her half-sister, Piper, who is now six and was adopted by the family two years ago.
“These have been the longest years of my life,” Jessica says, “just waiting to officially call her ours.”
Jessica and Matthew brought Jasmine to court on National Adoption Day where foster care officials rolled out the red carpet for the seven Seminole County children who would be going home with their forever families.
“You could just feel the excitement in the courtroom that day,” Jessica says. “It was a dream come true for all of us.”
The Brice family hopes to give Jasmine the normalcy and stability she’s always craved. She’ll be attending Seminole High School next year and wants to be a nurse. Jasmine takes piano lessons and loves soccer.
“It was a tough family situation, but we knew we could give Jasmine the life she deserves,” Jessica says through tears. “The road to adoption is heartwrenching, but that day we signed the paperwork was the greatest day of our lives. We’ve just been praying for so long, and now it’s done.”
Jasmine is now officially a Brice; the official last-name change was something she’d always wanted. The family surprised her with her very own bedroom decorated in hand paintings of classic Mickey Mouse.
“She’s never had a bedroom, a place to call her own,” Jessica says. “Every kid should have a place they can feel safe.”
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