CENTERVILLE — Threads of compassion, love and grace weave through the events that led Bobby Thomas to establish the Priss & Frank Family Center, a safe, supervised and homelike place where children in foster care may visit with their parents.
The nonprofit center, which is expected to begin operation June 11, opened its doors to the community Thursday to show off its facility and to allow for a meet-and-greet with community members. The center is located at 2300 Elberta Road, Suite B, in Centerville.
“During my growing up years ... I know what it’s like to go from one house to another house,” said Thomas, owner and director of Acquire Wisdom Daycare & Learning Center.
“There were people in my life who helped me along. ... The community took care of me ... (and) I want to give back,” said Thomas, who grew up in Perry.
Thomas’ mom was pregnant with her when her father died, leaving her mother with nine children to raise. But Thomas’ grandparents, Priss and Frank Zanders, took the family in and built a small home for them in the backyard.
When Thomas was 11, her grandmother also offered another sacrifice. Thomas was staying with her grandmother when Thomas’ flannel nightgown caught fire over the wood stove. She ran and jumped in bed with her grandmother, who covered Thomas with her body to put out the flames that scarred Thomas’ back and that quickly spread to the whole bed.
Her grandmother carried scars on her arms and hands for the rest of her life from shielding Thomas and smothering the fire with quilts.
The self-sacrificing love and compassion of her grandparents helped shape Thomas long after their passing.
When Thomas was 17, tragedy struck again with the death of her mother, Nina Bell Jackson, and the resulting splitting up of her family, which had grown by three more children.
Before organized foster care, the community took care of its own, Thomas said.
Two women, Helen Adams and Nona Lawson, took her in with their own families. She stayed with the Lawson family for a time and then stayed with the Adams family.
Over the years, Thomas said God placed a vision in her heart of Acquire Wisdom Daycare & Learning Center.
The center grew into a new building, but Thomas said she just didn’t feel God was finished with the old one, a renovated home that was originally built in 1910.
Then came two special little foster girls and Terry Di Diego, who was then the executive director of CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates, for children in foster care.
The girls, sisters, a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old, were often picked up at the daycare center by the Division of Family and Children Services case worker, who carried them to a supervised visit with a parent.
Thomas always wondered about where those visits were held.
About the same time, Thomas was selling tickets for a friend for a CASA fund-raising event and she talked to Di Diego about where the foster children go for visits with parents.
Di Diego said she shared with Thomas how many of the visits take place in a room at the Division of Family and Children Services or at a public place such as McDonald’s.
Di Diego expressed a need for a facility where the visits were more like being in a home in which the parents could be supervised and taught life skills while they were with their children.
Di Diego noted that with budget constraints, often the supervised visits are few. A center would offer an opportunity for more visits and for developing deeper bonds between foster children and their parents.
While not every child should be reunited with their natural parents, Di Diego noted that such a center would give those who are fighting to get their children back an opportunity to prove themselves.
After talking with Di Diego, Thomas said she knew in her heart the purpose for the old building.
The women met together for more than year, brainstorming and dreaming. Then it was time for action. Thomas founded the nonprofit agency, and Di Diego became its director.
It seemed fitting to the women to name the center after Thomas’ grandparents, Priss and Frank, and that the center should be dedicated to the care of foster children as the community had cared for Thomas.
The supervised visits, which will include monitoring by camera and sometimes also with the presence of a volunteer, can now take place more frequently and in family-type rooms that you might find in a home, Di Diego said. There is also a fullyfunctional kitchen where parents and children can cook dinner together. There is also a playground on site.
The center will offer parenting skills, life-skills classes, tutoring and a clothing bank, Di Diego said. It will also offer a safe place for custodial and noncustodial parents who do not get along to exchange children in a family-type setting with a separate entrance and exit, she said.
The center, which will operate on sponsorships of in-kind or cash donations, also is expected to rely heavily on volunteers. Volunteers will receive training, Di Diego said.
But if the type of support experienced so far is any indication, the center is on the threshold of a great future, Thomas said.
“So many people in the community are looking forward to this center opening — donating furniture and time and cleaning and painting,” Thomas said.
Maureen Echols and Barbara Locke, who voluntarily serve on review panels for Houston County Juvenile Court, both said the center is very much needed. The review panels make recommendations to the judge about the care of the children.
“It’s going to be really wonderful for the children and for the foster parents,” Echols said at the open house.
For more information about the center, contact Di Diego at (478) 335-3310.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.