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Families First

Making the moments count

Family relationships can be the boon or bane of our existence. Long-term relationships such as these have their ups and downs, surprises and grievances but, for the most part, they are the cornerstones of who we are.


In this chapter, we feature Better Together, a growing Florida-based organization with a mission to work through troublesome family issues with critically needed community and mentoring intended to keep kids out of the foster care system.


When families come together in support of a cause they care about, not only does the given organization or person benefit, but familial bonds are inevitably strengthened. Kimberly Blaker suggests a dozen ways families can band together for the greater good.


Valerie’s House provides grieving children and their families the support they need following the death of a loved one. Sarah Andrus shares how this organization helps people navigate the most troubling times of their lives.


Quest for Success Executive Director Susan Zumstein offers a contemplative piece for parents and guardians who want to help their graduating high schoolers find the right fit in terms of education and personal fulfillment.


When adults and kids are stuck inside, even our electronic devices can be a bore. In the spirit of old-fashioned wonder, we share a video of fascinating home crafts that are really experiments in and of themselves.


As Winston Churchill said, “There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues … are created, strengthened and maintained.”

Better Together


Family Volunteerism Rewards Everyone
Finding the Right Fit
When the World Stops
Fascination Stations


Family Volunteerism Rewards Everyone 

12 ways to engage kids in civic responsibility

by Kimberly Blaker

Volunteering is a great way for families to make a difference in their communities. Not only does raise an understanding of civic responsibility in kids, it also provides memorable family bonding experiences that last a lifetime.

Countless volunteer opportunities exist to fit your family’s talents and interests. Sharing those needs with your kids will undoubtedly unveil causes they care about, and nothing is more rewarding than knowing you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

Here are some ideas to share with your kids to see what triggers their enthusiasm. Then make a family plan and put it into action.

1. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or food pantry 

Call and speak to the manager and offer your family’s service — there are several to choose from in Southwest Florida. Be sure to mention the children’s ages. At a soup kitchen, you can help prepare and serve a meal or do kitchen cleanup. Food pantries often need help with stocking or putting together food baskets for families in need. Some pantries also need delivery assistance.

2. Help out at an animal shelter 

Offer to spend an afternoon walking dogs or playing with cats. You can transport a pet to a new home, clean kennels, donate supplies or help find loving homes through social media.

3. Adopt a road or park for cleanup 

Most states have adopt-a-highway programs. Keep kids safe by requiring them to stay off the road, picking up litter elsewhere. Park cleanup is a safer option for young kids.

4. Help build a house with Habitat for Humanity

This organization helps build and renovate homes for families in need. Visit to find your local Habitat organization, which may offer a teen volunteer program.

5. Send letters to military members overseas 

For more information, visit

6. Help the homeless

Coordinate with a local homeless shelter to volunteer. If needed by the shelter, ask local businesses to donate items for the homeless and create care kits of dental care products, comb, soap, shampoo, hand wipes, razors, shaving cream, etc.

7. Help an older adult by running errands

If it’s too difficult for an older person you know to go out, offer to transport them to do errands.

8. Help someone who’s visually impaired 

Contact Lighthouse of Collier, Inc. ( or Florida Division of Blind Services ( and offer your help. A visually impaired person may need assistance with cleaning, cooking, yard work or errands.

9. Offer your service to a domestic violence shelter 

Coordinate with the Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Naples ( to hold a clothing and toy drive. Find out what they need and how your family might help. One idea is to put together arts and crafts kits, then spend an afternoon teaching a craft workshop for kids at the shelter. Childcare is also often needed for working mothers staying at the shelters.

10. Perform landscaping for a disabled person

If you don’t know anyone who’s disabled, ask coworkers or friends if they know of someone. Or do an online search for disability organizations in your area.

11. Foster a homeless animal

Animal rescues are always in need of families to foster homeless pets while awaiting permanent placement. Search online for pet rescues and animal shelters. If your family has a favorite breed, look for a breed-specific rescue in your area.

12. Perform for children in a hospital

Countless kids suffer from diseases that require lengthy and sometimes indefinite hospital stays. If your family’s got talent, what better way to put it to good use? Reach out to Naples Community Hospital ( and Lee Health ( to arrange a date to perform for the kids. You could put on funny skits, perform magic, dance, play music or do acrobats.

There is no shortage of volunteering opportunities in Southwest Florida. For a complete list of charitable nonprofit organizations for which your family might find a volunteering opportunity, go to the Collier Community Foundation website,

Kimberly Blaker is a freelance writer. She also owns an online bookshop, Sage Rare & Collectible Books, specializing in out-of-print, scarce, signed, and first editions; fine bindings; ephemera and more at



Better Together

Strengthening families and preventing the need for foster care

by Pamela Hayford and Kathy Grey

Born and raised in Florida, Megan Rose grew up in a loving home, but it wasn’t perfect.

“I grew up with two loving parents, but my dad struggled with addiction,” Rose says.

Through the support of a local church, the family became whole again. The congregation supported her mother while helping her father get on track and stay sober.

Rose’s childhood experiences inspired her career in child welfare. She earned degrees in psychology and human services from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and went on to become a foster care case manager. But even in that role, she saw families weren’t getting what they really needed.

“In the foster care system, the caseloads were too high, there was too much paperwork and red tape, too many children being shuffled from home to home.” Rose saw the foster care system failing kids and was determined to fix it.

In 2015, Rose was hired to take the helm of a Chicago nonprofit’s Southwest Florida chapter. Still, it wasn’t entirely what families needed. Rose wanted to create an organization that’s not only volunteer-driven but professionally supported and 100% privately funded. Out of this grew Better Together, with a mission to strengthen families and prevent the need for foster care. It does this through two programs: Better Families and Better Jobs.

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Megan Rose

Through the Better Families program, parents receive guidance and support to work through difficulties and strengthen their families with the help of mentors and volunteer, background-checked host families. Host families care for the children short term while the parents do the hard work of finding housing or employment, seeking treatment or taking other measures. Professional case workers support families along the way.


With the help of hundreds of volunteers and church communities, Better Together builds lasting support systems that help families cope with hardships and ensures that children are cared for in a safe home until the family can be reunited.

The average stay with a host family is 45 days, compared to the average Florida foster care stay of 596 days. Ninety-eight percent of Better Together families are successfully reunified and do not require further state intervention.

“It’s rarely a single thing that pushes people over the edge. There are generally several causes,” Rose says. “Our programs figure out exactly what those barriers to stability are and how we can best help.”

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Megan Rose looks on as young Jack celebrates the reunification with his family.

The Better Jobs program was created to address the 76% of families who come to Better Together because of economic hardship tied to unemployment. It’s more than just job fairs, as participants can attend workshops for help with resumes and interviewing skills, receive clothing and a haircut for interviews, and receive one-on-one job coaching services with trained volunteer job coaches.


Job coaching is also available outside of the job fair environment. To date, Better Jobs has helped some 38,000 job seekers find employment across 26 states.


“Our mission is to create a world where every family has someone to call when life gets hard,” Rose says.

Better Together is active in 14 Florida counties: Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Desoto, Sarasota, Nassau, Duval, Clay, Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee, Glades, Hendry and Hardee.

“Our immediate goal is to strengthen our ability to help families help themselves in those regions, and our long-term goal is to take the program statewide, reduce the need for foster care and become a model for the nation.”

The nonprofit’s paradigm has been honored by several community organizations in the past three years as its programs garner greater notoriety. Most recently, it was named the 2022 Nonprofit of the Year by SWFL Inc. in the INCredible Awards. Rose was also selected to Manhattan Institute’s Civil Society Fellows, an opportunity for innovative nonprofit leaders to bring the story of how they are solving a social challenge in their community to a national audience.

“One of our greatest needs right now is volunteers, particularly as host families and mentors,” Rose says. “As inflation and housing costs rise, families need more support. For the first time,” she says, adding, “We recently had to start a waiting list for families seeking mentors.

“By building a community around struggling families, we help them succeed and stand on their own, raising a new generation of children free of the trauma of foster care.”



When the World Stops

Valerie’s House is there to ensure that children and families don’t grieve loss alone

by Sarah Andrus

Behind every great organization is a leader, and behind every leader, there is often a story.

On a hot, muggy July afternoon in 1987, Angela, 11, a couple of months from entering middle school, and Lisa, 9, a rising third grader, sat waiting with their camp counselor on the curb of the parking lot for their mom to pick them up.

Their mom worked as a nurse, and it wasn’t unusual for her to be a little late coming from the hospital to pick them up. Their grandma pulled up to get them.

Sweaty and tired from a full day at camp, the sisters buckled in and rode home in silence. Shortly after arriving home, their uncle pulled into the driveway with their dad in the passenger seat, and Angela noticed his eyes were red and puffy. She knew something was off. They went inside the house, and the girls heard the worst words two little girls can hear, “Your mother is dead.”

Time stood still. Family, as they knew it, was shattered. A huge piece of their hearts and their world left that day.

The months following were a blur, but Angela Melvin excelled in school and cheerleading, and led an active social life. From the outside, she didn’t show signs of grieving. And it wasn’t until college, when she would overhear her roommate talking to her mother every night, that the mountain of grief she had been holding in began to surface.

Still, she pressed on, graduated from college, and pursued a successful career in journalism … until one day the seed was planted inside her aching heart to return to where it all began, in Fort Myers, and create a place for children like her and her sister. She named that place Valerie’s House, in honor of her late mother.

Valerie’s House took root in January 2016, sprouted and has grown tremendously in six years, with three locations in Southwest Florida that have helped thousands of children and adults over the years.

Stori, 12, walked through the doors of Valerie’s House in April 2016, just a few months after its opening. Her head was down and her shoulders slumped. Angela immediately recognized and felt her pain.

Stori’s mom, her best friend, had died suddenly from pneumonia. She knew Stori’s world had stopped and shattered. Angela and Stori immediately connected.

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Stori­­­­­­ and Angela Melvin 

Despite her initial reluctance to be in a grief support group, Stori came often and gained tools for understanding and expressing her feelings. Today, six years later, Stori helps lead grief support groups at Valerie’s House and lends the same understanding and support that she’s received from Angela over the years.

Families are forever changed after loss. Angela, Stori and the hundreds of children that come through the doors of Valerie’s House know the aching pain of having a piece of their heart missing. They also come to discover the deep love and support of walking the road of grief and mourning together.

Stori names Angela as one of the most prominent female role models in her life, and Valerie’s House an integral part of her success. Stori has graduated from high school and is currently studying psychology at Boston University with her eyes on a Ph.D. and a career as a therapist.

“No matter how bad things can get or how terrible a situation you can wind up in, there will always be a chance to get out of it and change for the better,” Stori said. “When my mom died, my entire world stopped. But Valerie’s House became my second family, and I know they will always be there for me and anyone else who needs them.”

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and Valerie’s House is a family with arms wide open for children and families whose worlds have stopped.

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Sarah Andrus is the director of outreach Collier County for Valerie’s House. She is passionate about the Valerie’s House vision to ensure that no child will grieve alone. She remains deeply humbled and grateful to be a part of the Valerie’s House Team.


Finding the Right Fit

Is a college education the key to your child’s fulfillment?

by Susan Zumstein

How can we help our children avoid being a statistic during college?

Recently, the graduates of 2022 received their high school diplomas, a significant milestone to be sure, with many students heading off to college. While college is an appropriate choice for many, is it always the best path? Here are some tough statistics:

  • In 2020, 64% of students attending a 4-year college or university took six years to graduate. 

  • 30% of college freshmen did not advance to their sophomore year.

Many factors contribute to these statistics, which lead to rising levels of student debt. Students may be academically unprepared for the rigor of college curriculum. Some may lack the self-discipline necessary to manage the independence students are afforded in college. A dearth of advising at larger colleges and universities contributes to students lacking a direction. 

When considering if college is the appropriate next step after high school, I encourage our Quest students and families to consider these factors:

  • Does your child have a passion for learning? College, at its foundation, is four more years of intensive and, hopefully, meaningful learning. 

  • Does your child have the self-discipline and time management skills necessary to live independently?

  • Did your child achieve in high school academics at a level that will translate into success at a more rigorous level?

  • Will your child be attending the college that is a good fit for them, affording them the advising and guidance necessary for success?

As the mother of two sons who attended four-year colleges, I realize how easy it is to see the name and prestige of the colleges our children attend as validation of a parental job well done. However, as the executive director of Quest for Success, I have also seen how detrimental it is to the student when a parent’s perception of “success” does not align with the child’s personal characteristics and academic potential.  


Here are some things to consider as your children approach their post high school decision:

  • Evaluate if your child’s academic abilities match the rigor of his or her chosen college or chosen major.

  • Consider how your child benefits from having conversations with their guidance counselor about scheduling or their professors about coursework. This should provide insight into the size of the college that will be a good fit for them. 

  • Your child’s major does not always lead to a specific career. Based on our hundreds of Quest alumni, a specific college major does not correlate directly to a specific career path. 

Options and opportunities, a secure economic future and a sense of fulfillment were the things I hoped for my sons after college.

Let’s try to use our wisdom as adults to guide our children toward a future in which they will not be a statistic of difficulties, delays and debt. Instead, let’s guide them toward an education that will help them recognize and achieve their full potential.  


In 1996, Susan Zumstein began as a volunteer at Quest for Success, now serving as its executive director. For the past 26 years, Zumstein has been an integral part of the Quest Program, growing it from 10 students to currently serving more than 500 students across Southwest Florida.



Fascination Stations

These crafty home experiments are fantastic foils for families stuck inside

by Kathy Grey

Lightning storms and high heat are famous for disrupting outdoor activities here in Southwest Florida. So, what do you do when you’re forced indoors with your kids or grandkids who have “nothing to do?”

It’s tempting to let them tune out on their devices, but we were intrigued by these interactive, educational and crafty experiments that can captivate the attention of every family member over the age of 3.

Have a paper and pencil or your note-taking device ready, and take a look at this video. List the supplies you’ll need (the majority you already have at home) and launch a different kind of play station that will delight and inspire.

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