ForKids marks 20th year

Published 9:08 pm Monday, November 17, 2008

The low point for Jann Bell came when her husband tried to beat her to death in front of their daughter.

The turning point, however, may have been when she was evicted from the rat-infested home they had shared. That eviction, she told a group celebrating the 20th anniversary of ForKids Inc. on Friday, put her on the path to self-reliance and even homeownership.

Bell, who changed her name and secured full custody of her children since the 2005 beating that sent her to the hospital and her husband to jail, spoke in a voice that quaked as she looked out at a room full of people invited to help celebrate the nonprofit organization’s anniversary and kick off its 2009 fundraising program.

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She was one of the main speakers at the event, and her story held people in their seats, motionless and silent as they hung on every word.

“If it wasn’t for ForKids taking a chance on me, I don’t know where I’d be,” Bell said. “I’m not ashamed of being from a shelter, because ForKids sheltered me. ForKids has opened doors for me, and I want to help open doors for others.”

After her eviction, Bell was put up in a hotel for a month by the Salvation Army. She was then referred to the ForKids emergency shelter, and later worked her way into the group’s transitional housing program, where she and her daughter moved into a three-bedroom apartment.

“We felt like princesses,” she said.

Today, with the help of Habitat for Humanity, and after 250 hours of volunteer work for that organization, she owns a new home. She still works as a bus driver in Norfolk, a job she found soon after becoming a ForKids client.

Bell’s is a remarkable story in an organization noted for its success in helping people turn around their lives.

Through a network of shelters, housing, counseling and other programs, ForKids helps its client families move “from homelessness to home,” according to the organization’s Web site.

Clients get a safe place to live and counseling to help them understand and emerge from the circumstances that brought them to the organization. They must do household chores and office tasks to earn their room and board, and their strengths and abilities are nurtured to encourage self-sufficiency and family responsibility.

“ForKids doesn’t give anybody anything for free, except hope and a way to break out of homelessness,” Vice President Thomas Steffens said Friday.

As a family-centered organization, ForKids has programs that focus on empowering homeless parents while encouraging hard work and success for their children.

The group’s Hot Meals & Homework program is an example. Through that program, volunteers provide tutoring and mentoring for participating children, and local restaurants provide hot meals for the entire family.

ForKids officials say that 83 percent of the children in the program improved their grades during 2007 and that 94 percent of children involved with the group advance to the next grade at the end of the school year.

Such success is unusual amongst populations of homeless children. According to a 2007 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, a recent study of homeless children in New York, for example, showed that 23 percent repeated a grade and 13 percent were placed in special education, often inappropriately.

Three of the Hampton Roads group’s student-clients spoke up for the organization on Friday, praising it for the difference it has made in their lives.

“I know that I’m lucky,” said 10-year-old Ashanté. “We now live in our own home. Many families don’t make it out of homelessness.”

The organization serves more than 90 families, including more than 180 children, each week, according to Executive Director Thaler McCormick. That number is expected to rise as a result of recent expansions, including an October merger with Suffolk’s Center for Hope and New Beginnings.

“We are so excited to provide services in Western Tidewater,” McCormick said during her portion of Friday’s program.

The merger, added Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim, was “strong evidence of (ForKids’) reputation for excellence throughout the region.”

The group has a $3.1-million budget this year, half of which must come from community donations. For more information, visit