LAKELAND (FBCH)—U.S. Census officials estimate that 24-million children in America – one out of three lives apart from a father, most with little or no contact. Those numbers have been on a steady increase for two generations, and the social impact is widespread. Scholars and social scientists have noted impacts on fatherless children ranging from criminal behavior to learning challenges, and even childhood obesity.
But among Florida Baptists, there are men who are approaching the front line to stand in the gap, vowing to turn the tide of this cultural and spiritual epidemic of fatherless children, one child at a time.
Tom Bozzuto is one of those men. He has a knack for details and plans. After all, as director of quality assurance for the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, that is his job. But Bozzuto and his wife, Sarah, have been giving attention to the finer details of children’s lives for years.
“So many children need a positive Godly role model in this world, especially foster children,” said Bozzuto. “You don’t have to be perfect, but you do have to be willing.”
Foster parents to several children over the years, Tom and Sarah felt led to adopt one of those children, Nehemiah, out of the foster care system last year.“He changed my life,” said Bozzuto, speaking of two-year-old Nehemiah. “It is so cool being a dad. I can not wait until he gets older and we can do all the fun father, son things. I am really looking forward to that.”
On the day after the adoption was finalized, a sister was born to Nehemiah’s birth mother. That newborn came home with Tom and Sarah from the hospital, and is now in their care as a foster child while custody issues are resolved.
“It was a crazy week,” Bozzuto recalls.
Tom’s involvement began with several years of providing round-the-clock emergency services to children in crisis. He also enjoys work with teens in his home church. In his latest role with FBCH, he also directs the hiring of like-minded couples whose desire it is to serve as house parents.
Even outside his work, Bozzuto is still all about details and plans, but he’s quick to give them proper perspective. A guiding verse of Scripture for his role as a father, foster parent, and minister to teens is Jeremiah 29:11, an affirmation for him of the Father’s details and plans for us all.
“I look at this verse in terms of the children we care for,” Bozzuto said while reflecting on the verse’s promise. “God knows the plan He has for each child. We may not, but God does, and that plan is to prosper each and every one.”
Just a few months ago, John Cooley and his wife, Tammy, started a new phase of their lives as house parents on the Miami campus of the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes. John and Tammy recently returned from serving eight-years as church-planting missionaries in Burkina Faso. Though initially they intended to return to the pastorate, they felt God leading them to minister to children in crisis after seeing an advertisement for house parents and speaking with a FBCH recruiter.
“We have learned, since arriving, that our experience as missionaries has made the new challenge here less ‘outside the box’ than we thought it might be,” said Cooley who served as a pastor in the U.S. for ten years before the move to Africa.
Cooley is often observed making his daily four-mile run, then rounding up boys on the campus to run another couple of miles with him.
“John is extremely active with the kids,” said Stephen Robert, the Miami campus administrator. “He is always playing outside and exercising with them – offering the kind of Godly male influence some have literally never know in their lives.”
As empty nesters, the Cooleys are giving the same love and attention, as well as spiritual instruction to eight kids in their cottage for whom that was lacking.“Being a natural parent helps us to understand, at least to some degree, the difference between behavior that is trauma driven and behavior that is natural to any child,” said Cooley whose son is an Army Ranger stationed in south Georgia. “We respect the reality that the kids living with us have all been separated from their families, and that they have all missed out, whether because of abuse, neglect, or irresponsibility, on a normal American childhood.”
If Mark Worsley thought he had seen it all in his work as a youth minister, he was in for a fulfilling surprise when he and his wife, Roxanne, were led to serve as house parents on the Jacksonville campus.
“I just pray that God makes me usable where ever He places me,” said Worsley. “It’s really amazing to look back and see how he used one ministry to prepare me for the next one.”
And with the eight to ten teenage girls he and his wife Roxanne parent in their Jacksonville campus cottage, that ministry role can sometimes be quite a task.
“There are the normal things that a father deals with: teacher, leader, protector…the list goes on,” he said. “But seeing them grow deeper in their relationship with Christ, or more confident in themselves, and, of course, when one gets adopted into a Christian home – that makes it worth any challenge we deal with.”
Having raised their own children and now proud grandparents, he and Roxanne consider their service, particularly in an all-girls cottage, a Kingdom investment.
“We as Christians need to stand in the gap for the broken and hurting families all around us,” said Worsley. “There are so many families who need someone to come alongside them and help. I’m not talking about hand-outs. I’m talking about getting involved.”
Worsley says its a role many men are already prepared for and are just underestimating their ability to impact the lives of fatherless children.
“You can become a father figure, an uncle, or a big brother. Become something other than an observer,” said Worsley as he reflected on his own experience. “There are children of all ages out there who need someone to be there for them. They long for safety. They desperately need comfort, peace and love. More than that, they need Christians to take them by the hand and show them that it does exist… and then, do what it takes to see that it happens.”
These are just three among an army of men who are stepping into mentoring, foster parent and adoptive roles for fatherless children across Florida, investing themselves in the hope that seeds they plant that will be reaped in the form of transformed Christ followers over time.
“All you can do is pray and let God be in control,” Bozzuto said of the work they do with children in crisis. “We’re His servants in this ministry.”
For more information on becoming a foster parent, mentor or house parent with the Florida Baptist Chidren’s Homes, visit www.fbchomes.org.