40 Years of Service and Dedication to Florida’s At-Risk Youth

In 1973, the bodies of 27 young boys – aged 13 to 20 – were discovered in the Houston area. Labeled by the media as a massacre, public unrest and outrage rose as details emerged showing that many of these young people were runaways – “hippies” – from middle class families. With no resources or help available to them, they were unprotected and as a result, were brutalized and lost their lives. Soon after this tragedy, the 1974 Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (Title III) was passed and 60 runaway youth programs were established across the nation. Although this act arose out of dismal circumstances, it was the first step toward providing better support for America’s at-risk youth.

Six of these programs were established in Florida and it did not take long for their directors to recognize that our state’s runaway kids needed someone in their corner. With a shared passion for serving runaways and acquiring federal funding to assist them, the directors dreamed up the idea of forming an alliance on behalf of these youth. This dream became reality on July 23, 1976, when the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services was officially established.

As president and CEO of the Florida Network, I oversee all aspects of this organization. I am involved in everything from meetings with state leaders to editing our monthly newsletters. I see firsthand the needs of the at-risk youth and families we serve, and I see how hard our 29 member agencies and 28 shelters work to meet those needs. Since 2010, I have served in this role with pride and passion, and my deep belief in the potential of each and every youth and family in Florida has swelled over the years. The people I work with – staff, board members, advisory groups, not-for-profits, homeless shelters – continue to remind me of this potential, pushing me to encourage better programs, better juvenile justice systems, better funding and better advocacy.

Since those first years in the ‘70s we have seen many changes in the needs of the youth that we serve. They are children who fall victim to the exploitation of pimps and traffickers. They are siblings who need a place to stay because their parents have lost their homes. They are youth with severe mental illnesses, whose parents have lost hope of ever finding them the help that they need. They are children of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. They are children kicked out of their homes because their sexual orientation or gender identity is not welcome where they stay. Many of these children are both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Others, children who are in foster care whose past traumas make it difficult for them to live peacefully in a foster home. There are many more children even less easy to identify by one, or any, of these issues. Two things have remained constant: The first, teenagers are much the same as they have always been, one foot in childhood, another in adulthood – anxious for approval and belonging and yet desperate for independence. The second, our programs are there to serve them whatever their circumstances – to persevere in a relentless effort to be there for all that need, to shelter them from whatever storm threatens their future.

Perseverance is a common theme in the Network. Despite the adversities we have had to overcome over the years, the Florida Network has persevered, launching its own initiatives and pooling efforts across the state to provide the nation’s first runaway hotline, acquire funding, see legislative victories and develop new tools and skills to better serve the ever-changing population of children and teens statewide.

For 40 years, the Florida Network has maintained a thriving and growing network of programs for at-risk youth and their families with the sole purpose of being their “yes” – “yes,” we can help you; “yes,” you can turn your life around; “yes,” this is a safe place. We have been able to provide this “yes” to nearly one million youth over the past four decades, giving them the hope and resources they need to take their uncertain future and turn it into a bright one.

Thanks to collaborative efforts such as our partnership with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida Network has become an important advocate to state leaders and lawmakers to pass legislation and secure appropriations on behalf of our programs and shelters in order to better serve our youth. This partnership, along with the national recognition the Florida Network has received, has given us the blessing of a national platform to advocate and support runaway, troubled and at-risk children and their families. We are the voices of so many who cannot speak. We are the faithful stewards of young people who need someone on their side.

Our 40th anniversary reminds me not only to reflect upon how far the Florida Network has come and how much we have accomplished, but also how far we still have to go. Now, more than ever, Florida’s at-risk youth and families need people in their corner. They need a network of influential leaders, agencies and shelters fighting the good fight.

With 40 years behind, let us look ahead to 40 more. Let us continue to keep the faith that the children and families we serve have a profound potential to achieve a bright and fulfilling future, and that our hard work and perseverance is truly changing lives across the state.

Stacy Gromatski is the president and CEO of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services. She can be reached at stacy@floridanetwork.org. For more information on the Florida Network, visit https://www.floridanetwork.org.