Blaine sits on his unmade bed and pores over a notebook – the pages filled with his sketches of black and white roses and graffiti letters. A row of model cars park on a shelf above his headboard. A nearby radio plays top-40 country music hits.
The room looks like any other 16-year-old boy’s bedroom, but the twin bed that Blaine sleeps in has not always been his own.
Almost 100 miles away from Blaine, another bed remains empty in the house that he called home.
Blaine lives in a family home at Boys Town Central Florida, a non-profit organization in Oviedo that seeks to protect and foster growth in children with rebellious attitudes and behavioral problems – teaching them to become productive members of society.
The family homes give children a place to stay long-term, away from their permanent homes while they learn important life skills such as following instructions, accepting consequences and being honest.
Rafael and Margarita Forestier are the “parents” here, preparing kids to avoid the rocky road that may have led them here.
“If we just help one person and get them on the right track, then maybe they can affect somebody else,” Margarita said.
“Nobody gave them a second chance, so we did.”
The family homes are made up of two assigned parents and about six Boys Town residents. The children are required to do chores, maintain their living space and treat others with respect. Doing so earns the children privileges like a night out at the movies or bowling.
Blaine came here two years ago from Palm Coast in Flagler County, sent off by his parents to Boys Town to develop his social skills. Blaine rarely spoke, kept to himself and often stole small items like index cards and pens.
He felt judged inside his own home while dealing with those issues, Rafael said.
“We know that he’s going to make mistakes,” Rafael said. “There’s no grudges held against him. It’s dealt with and we move on. I think that’s what helped him grow with trusting us a little more.”
The Forestiers have been counseling and reaching out to children like Blaine for years.
In 1995, the couple joined Boys Town Central Florida’s original emergency shelter in Sanford as shift supervisors, keeping children with suicidal tendencies and histories of self-harm under constant surveillance.
They worked at the shelter until 2000, when they moved to Connecticut with their children and worked in an all-girls behavioral program under the North American Family Institute (NAFI).
But the methods used in the (NAFI) program were a far cry from the sit-down-and-talk-it-out approach that Boys Town took. Girls struggling with drug addiction or past sexual and physical abuse would often become violent, and would have to be physically restrained by the program staff.
The Forestiers couldn’t take more than a year there, and left in 2001.
After creating a painting business that thrived for several years, the couple once again felt the urge to play a healing role in the lives of children. They moved back to Florida in 2010, and rejoined Boys Town Central Florida to be assigned parents in one of the family homes.
And the Forestiers know very well what keeps them coming back. Raised in Meriden, Conn., by his single mother, Rafael grew up wayward himself, falling into a rough crowd that abused and sold drugs. At no more than 16 years old, Rafael was transporting guns to local gangs.
“It’s a miracle that I’m not in jail,” Rafael said.
It wasn’t until his aunt took him to a church youth group that Rafael was able to turn his life around. Lou Papallo of the First Assembly of God church reached out to Rafael, taught him to be accountable for his actions, and later offered him a job to support himself.
Rafael learned what it meant to be hard-working man who supported a family, and went on to do just that.
Years later, Rafael and his wife were impacting young people’s lives at shelters – just as Papallo did with Rafael.
“Because he changed my life, I want to be able to change others,” Rafael said. “My wife and I have just been doing it ever since.”
Rafael’s own past experiences and the dangerous path he once walked have better equipped him to become a mentor to Blaine in dealing with his problems – in particular his habit of stealing.
“I’m trying to teach a kid that you don’t want to steal, because it could end up into something bigger in your life later and have a bigger consequence,” Rafael said.
After two years of living with the Forestiers, Blaine hasn’t stolen in months, and now leads the other Boys Town residents by example – going to bed at curfew without question, greeting people with a smile and encouraging other residents to follow rules around the house.
Blaine no longer feels judged, and has allowed his personality to shine through.
“It’s better than my actual home,” Blaine said.
Boys Town Central Florida focuses much of its resources on counseling and housing local children in Seminole County, but about 30 percent of the Boys Town children are like Blaine, coming from other parts of the state.
Last month the organization received a year’s worth of funding from the Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida, a non-profit organization that supports prevention programs that benefit children, families and communities.
The money will be used to bring Boys Town Central Florida’s Common Sense Parenting classes and In-Home Family Services to Orange County, broadening the organizations reach across Central Florida.
Boys Town Central Florida hopes that this expansion will help better serve struggling families in the area.
In the meantime, the Forestiers plan to continue teaching children the importance of respect and obeying rules, all while giving them a place they can call home.
“So many people need help, and we haven’t even scratched the surface,” Margarita said.
“Our house will always be filled.”
Boys Town Central Florida is currently searching for a new location in Orange County to house the incoming services.