Fort Myers Beach Realtor Shafer receives HOPE Award
Cynthia Shafer, a Realtor with Lahaina Realty in Fort Myers Beach, has been named as the first recipient of the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation’s HOPE award. The award stands for “Helping Other People Excel.”
Shafer, of Fort Myers, was honored Thursday during a live-stream of the foundation’s inaugural gala.
Shafer has been working to help children as an advocate for 26 years as part of the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation. “Every child needs a voice,” she said.
In 2001, she started Bedz for Kidz program to deliver beds to children in need. To date, nearly 3,000 beds have been delivered to children due to her efforts.
The program was started after Shafer heard from a grandmother that she couldn’t afford a bed for her granddaughter.
Another way Bedz for Kidz is important for Shafer is that it keeps siblings together in cases where they need to be separated from their parents. Foster parents may not have enough beds available to take in all of the siblings together, which Shafer views as adding additional stress on the children. Therefore, the program ensures the children can stay together by providing additional beds.
“Whenever you are separated as a kid from your siblings, it makes it harder. It is hard enough to be separated from your parents.”
The Long Island, New York native has been in Florida since attending the Florida Institute of Technology in the 1960’s. She earned a degree in oceanography and worked on studies used by NASA.
As an advocate, Shafer said she was able to provide “extra eyes in the home” for the court overseeing a case involving potential separation of children from the family. As a child’s advocate, it has been her job to tell the court what she finds to be in the best interest of the child. Sometimes, that may differ from how the Department of Children and Families interprets the situation.
Shafer said she has made efforts over the years to go to extra lengths to get to know the children she is assigned to. That can mean games of basketball, whiffle ball or trips to the mall and the movies. She has delivered Harry Potter books. “Harry Potter got the world to read,” she said. Connecting with teenagers can sometimes be harder, she admits. Children need to feel they are important, Shafer said.
Shafer said she tries not to leave a home until the children are smiling. Another important part of being an advocate is not placing one’s values on those of another family as part of child advocacy. “You can’t put them down in any way,” Shafer said.
Due to a knee surgery and the COVID-19 pandemic, Shafer has been focusing her energy on the Bedz for Kidz program. She said the thrill of a young boy receiving Superman sheets or a young girl receiving princess sheets and blankets to go along with a new bed helps drive her to continue with the work. She carries stuffed animals with her as well when she goes to a home to deliver a bed.
“We don’t leave until the kids are happy,” she said. Due to the pandemic, the organization has been relying on Walmart to make the bed deliveries.
During her time, Shafer has seen the worst side of society, from abused children to those neglected. Shafer said she has heard stories from children ranging from being burned to being left in a bathtub.
“These kids want to be like anybody else,” she said.
She said the community has supported the foundation’s efforts. The Twins and Red Sox have both been generous in letting children under the watch of the foundation attend spring training games. Shafer has also shelled money out of her own pocket to buy the kids hot dogs and hamburgers at the games.
Another program Shafer helped start is providing duffle bags or suitcases for children when they need to move into foster care. Previously, children would be given garbage bags to put in clothing or other belongings, which can be demeaning to the children. “If you have a suitcase, you have more dignity,” she said.
All of this work requires money, which is why the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation is holding its fundraising gala Thursday night.
“We couldn’t do it it without her,” said Jessica Stanfield, executive director of the Guardian Ad Litem Foundation, regarding why Shafer was chosen for the award.
Stanfield said there is a large need in the region for child advocates.
The foundation serves five counties – Lee, Charlotte, Collier, Hendry and Glades. There are 548 volunteers for all five counties, with 219 in Lee County.
In Lee County, which has the highest number of foster care children out of the five counties, only 60% of children have a child care advocate. As of September, there were 1,154 foster care cases in Lee County. Of those, 707 have a child advocate.
The foundation provides training and classes to be an advocate. A background check is also necessary.
There is a saying that it takes a village to raise a child.
For Stanfield, she says “the kids that we serve, it takes a galaxy.”