April 24, 2023
Candles and a Cake
Editor’s note: This blogpost was written as a part of Ringling College of Art and Design’s Storytelling for Community Engagement: Ringling Student Views course, fall semester 2022, led by instructor Sylvia Whitman. Students were paired with nonprofits to learn about their mission and impact, and the post that follows shares the story of The Children's Guardian Fund.
The project was completed as part of a collaboration with The Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center. Many thanks to Charlene Altenhain and Sarah Glendening, especially, for their coordination of student writers to nonprofit organizations.
A child walks home on their birthday. The traditional narrative would follow them entering their home to a loving and supportive family, surrounded by friends and gifts, a cake ablaze with candles glimmering like stars in the sky. Everyone sings, and a moment in time itself is dedicated solely to that child.
Another child walks to somewhere they might call home, though it depends on the definition used. It’s their birthday, but there’s no cake. No presents. Just the foster home they happen to be staying at that month.
Despite the support shown to children in foster care or unstable homes, it often falls short of the human aspect. Statistics take hold, and the small things are lost. Small things like a birthday party. The Children’s Guardian Fund was founded by Guardian ad Litem volunteers, individuals who provide representation for children in unsafe environments, in order to provide those small treasures to children in need.
It’s grown since its founding in 1995 as an all-volunteer organization. There was a lot of work to do in the Children’s Guardian Fund. Originally, the birthdays in question could be paid for with a $20 Publix gift card, enough to buy a cake and some other amenities. Currently, the nonprofit provides $35 gift cards to Walmart and gives children the opportunity to pick what they want for their birthday.
But more than the budget for a gift card has changed over those 27 years. The organization that was once volunteer-run now has two dedicated employees and is seeking a third.
Svetlana Ivashchenko, executive director of the Children’s Guardian Fund, joined in 2012 and was promoted to executive director in 2018. Svetlana stepped into a role that hadn’t existed long. The organization was run entirely by volunteers with the help of staff members from time to time. Records were kept on a single laptop in Excel. People worked out of an empty conference room but persevered to help children in need. Eventually, that space was repurposed, and the Children’s Guardian Fund no longer had a home.
But this didn’t stop the organization. Boxes, files, and anything belonging to the fund moved to Svetlana’s home as the nonprofit continued to work. Before long, the Children’s Guardian Fund found a new, permanent home—an office on the Glasser/Schoenbaum Human Services Center campus.
“It’s nice to be part of a community; otherwise, would be on 301 in a tiny office space,” Svetlana says.
Things began to change within the Children’s Guardian Fund. As executive director, Svetlana had the title to back up all the work she’d been doing. Furthermore, the nonprofit had partnered with the Sarasota Technology Users group just a year earlier to provide laptops to foster kids. No one anticipated how important laptops would be in just three years, when the pandemic struck.
The effects of COVID-19 are hard to express in words. The virus usurped the normality of life for many, forcing people to isolate and find a way to continue work. Having only two staff members, the Children’s Guardian Fund was able to quickly shift to fully online, but this came with the added complications of scaling back the budget and shifting the main fundraising event, a luncheon, to be completely digital.
The effects of COVID didn’t stop there. Schools turned to online classes, and many of the children supported by the fund were unable to attend classes due to a lack of a computer. The partnership with Sarasota Technology Users became more important than ever. That demand for computers hasn’t gone down in the past three years.
The Children’s Guardian Fund supports more than just laptops for children in school. It helps provide access to summer camps for children and provide tutors who establish normalcy and routine.
This tutoring program started with retired schoolteachers but has grown into a more organized system over the years. These tutors visit the homes of children to assess their learning and assist where needed. In a world where a child’s likelihood to be incarcerated later in life can be determined by their reading level as early as third grade, tutoring becomes essential to reinforce learning. Not only that, but the tutors provide a pillar of support to the children they teach and often become friends and role models.
Throughout all of this, the goal is to establish normalcy. To provide shelter and consistency in a world that is otherwise a raging storm with no sense of direction. Even if that shelter is something as small as a single candle in the darkness, it can become a beacon of hope in an otherwise dim world.
“Not everyone is a good person out there, but these are really deserving kids,” Svetlana says.
Ten years working to help children in need provides some harrowing stories. There are some things you can’t un-hear. But through all of this, Svetlana and the Children’s Guardian Fund have continued to stand up for kids in foster care.
“We always laugh and say, ‘The ideal outcome would be we close our doors because we’re no longer needed,’ but unfortunately that won’t happen any time soon,” says Svetlana.
She touches on the hopes for the future—a world where the Children’s Guardian Fund is able to offer more support to older kids in the system, helping them take advantage of the college application process, and empowering foster kids academically.
This is Svetlana’s dream, in her own words: Being there for our kids in whatever capacity they need us to be there for them. To be that light in the darkness. To always be there for our kids.