Children’s Harbor offers foster children a safe place to call home

Braulio, left, and Franky Alvarez are 18-year-old twins who recently aged out of the Children’s Harbor program in Pembroke Pines. The teens lived on campus along with other foster care children and have moved out to their first apartment while attending college. (Michael Laughlin / Sun Sentinel)

Twins Franky and Braulio Alvarez are not letting an unstable and troubled upbringing, which led them into foster care, stop them from moving on to college and loftier goals.

The 18-year-olds are proudly independent and recently moved into their first apartment not far from Broward College where they attend in Davie. Both aim high and hope to go to medical school.

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But to get this far, the Alvarez twins needed help — and they got it from kind strangers who stepped in when relatives couldn’t.

Children’s Harbor, a residential campus for foster children, opened its doors for the Alvarez boys last year. The organization prides itself on keeping siblings in foster care together for emotional support. A relationship with a brother or sister is especially vital for children who are removed from neglectful or abusive homes, said Elizabeth Wynter, the agency’s CEO.

“They lose everything,” she said. “But then to lose your sibling on top of that — that’s been your go-to person — is a trauma no child should have to go through.”

Keeping that bond strong and close was also important for the Alvarez brothers.

“We had each other to pick each other up,” Braulio said. “Even though everything else was changing, I knew him.”

Children’s Harbor is supported by the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund, a McCormick Foundation fund, which benefits South Florida nonprofit organizations that help local families and children in need.

Before the twins moved to the 13-acre Pembroke Pines campus, they were exposed to drug dealers, robberies and gang members in West Palm Beach where they lived, they said. They were often left alone during the school week with little money — and they mostly survived off snacks and cookies from the dollar store, the brothers said.

But instead of being drawn to a life of crime, the twins kept tabs on each other and vowed to stay away and do better, they said. What helped them ward off bad influences?

“The dream of something better,” Franky said. “We really needed to get out.”

When Children’s Harbor took them in last fall, Franky and Braulio said they tried their best to be as polite as possible. What they got in return was simple but surprising, they said: kindness.

Before the holidays, staff asked the brothers to make a Christmas gift list. The thoughtfulness blew their minds, they said. It had been years since their own mother had bought them presents.

“It’s not just about another kid in foster care,” Wynter said. “They aren’t cases to us, these are faces.”

Children’s Harbor houses several sets of siblings and other foster children in duplexes that are tastefully furnished and decorated, appearing anything but institutional and very much like home. The organization is licensed to provide up to 34 children with a place to live.

In each home, “house parents” rule the roost, setting bedtimes, assigning chores and even taking kids to doctors’ appointments, if needed. They share a meal every night as one big family at the dinner table.

For Donna Laurenfort, one of the house parents, becoming a mother to foster children in need was a dream come true. She was never able to have children of her own and couldn’t ignore her maternal instincts.

“This is what I always wanted to do,” she said, getting tearful. “I always wanted a house full of boys. Everything just comes natural. You have rules and policies, you have to put structure. It doesn’t seem like a job.”

Now, even as adults, Franky and Braulio’s support system has not vanished. They formed special bonds with a former CEO and a maintenance worker at Children’s Harbor who have stood by as guides for the boys as they begin to navigate adulthood.

Sue Glasscock, the former CEO of Children’s Harbor, was one of those who saw the boys’ potential. She helped the twins with their first apartment and college applications.

“I think they have matured a great deal very quickly often because that’s what you have to do when you enter foster care,” Glasscock said. “It’s hard to imagine being completely on their own at that age, but they were.

“They just needed a safety net,” she said.

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About the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund

Until Dec. 31, 2015, you will be reading stories in the Sun Sentinel, and on SunSentinel.com, about local agencies supported by the Sun Sentinel Children’s Fund.

Already in 2015, the Children’s Fund has awarded over $200,000 to support 16 charities. By the end of the year, another $300,000 will be awarded.

How to donate:

Call 800-519-2480, or go online at SunSentinelChildrensFund.org/donate.

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