Ernest Hooper Ernest Hooper, Times Columnist/East Hillsborough Bureau Chief
Thursday, June 18, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Carissa Alvanarz walked onto the campus at A Kid's Place in Brandon and her heart suddenly swept her back to her earliest childhood memories.
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The five, 12-bed homes on Lithia-Pinecrest Road just south of Lumsden Avenue reminded her of the Joshua House in North Tampa, where she once resided as a foster child.
Back then, she was the little girl searching for a warm embrace and a shoulder to lean on. Now Alvanarz, one of the newest youth counselors at A Kid's Place, a new emergency shelter for abused kids, will be that welcoming face for another generation of children.
"I just started bawling, started crying," said Alvanarz, who is now 21 and lives in Valrico. "Joshua House was my first good memory. I can remember playing on the playground. I can remember going to the multipurpose room. I can remember the little functions we would do. I still remember one of my youth counselor's names. Her name was Kelly, and there was another one named Terri.
It's the only thing I can honestly say I remember."
Carissa and her twin brother, Cody, ended up in foster care after a difficult beginning. Two separate families eventually adopted them. Carissa raves about both adoptive families, but Joshua House also holds a special place in her heart. So it is with A Kid's Place. From the first time she drove by and discovered its purpose, Alvanarz longed to work there.
Trucks merely moved dirt around the lot last August when she began sending her resume to Kids Charity of Tampa Bay, the nonprofit that runs the home. She sent it again and again. And again. Finally, officials told her to wait until February.
"We had no idea who she was," Kids Charity executive director DeDe Grundel said.
A Kid's Place and Joshua House are linked through Dottie Berger-MacKinnon, a driving force behind the creation of both facilities. She's the reason the designs are similar and the work at both homes was guided by Greg Johnson's Precise Construction.
Sharon Alvanarz worked as a secretary for Precise. She and her husband, Duane, eventually adopted Carissa after her stay at Joshua House. They are the only people Carissa has ever called Mom and Dad.
So it's little wonder Carissa's emotional attraction to A Kid's Place only deepened her first day on the site in March. She walked into one of the homes and found many of the Precise Construction workers who befriended her during those early days.
"In fact, one of the old workers bought me my first pair of shoes, and I used to sleep with them," Carissa explained. "He bought me these black Mary Janes. I wouldn't wear them, and I didn't know what to do with them. So I slept with them, and no one was allowed to touch them."
Carissa searched for that gentleman, Bob Seiffert, but learned from his wife that day that he had died years ago.
"It was very heartbreaking for me because he was one of the first people I remember," she said.
Now Carissa seeks to create positive memories for children thrust into Hillsborough's foster care system. Carissa's training will allow her to implement the center's philosophies, and she speaks with a wisdom that belies her age. It's her personal experience, however, that will guide her helping hands.
"When they're scared, the first thing a kid is going to say to you is, 'You don't know where I'm coming from.' I can say, 'Really? I know where you're coming from.' I think compassion and the sense that they're not alone will help the kids."
Carissa says she has always been drawn to children, but she had an epiphany two years ago and realized that working with kids should be her career and her passion. She believes God put A Kid's Place into her life and marvels at how it has worked out.
For Berger-MacKinnon, Carissa's full-circle story reminds her that the rewards of her advocacy work may not be realized until later in life. I guess that's true of anyone who has ever helped a child.
That's all I'm saying.