By LINDA CHION KENNEY
The Empty Closet at Riverview United Methodist Church in south Hillsborough County, which caters to the needs of foster parents and the children they care for, celebrated it’s grand opening in April. Longtime church member Alicia Lightsey was in attendance for this special event..
It’s the third Empty Closet location for West Florida Foster Care Services, one of three licensing agencies for foster parents in Hillsborough County. According to Janet Rinaldi, West Florida’s director of family advocacy, the county leads the state in the need for foster care aid, with a shortage of both families and beds for the 2,500 children in need, a number that is growing.
Toward that end, Lightsey has made her mark, becoming a foster parent with her husband Jerry almost a decade ago. They took in their first child just days before learning their long-standing efforts to get pregnant had been rewarded.
“I don’t know that we would have started our foster journey if I had known we were pregnant beforehand,” said Lightsey, with three children, including her biological daughter, Lily Ann, and her foster baby, Daisy, at the April 9 Empty Closet grand opening. “I probably would have assumed that we’d be overwhelmed. But I’m so glad it happened that way, because now, nine years later, 40 kids have been under our roof. It’s truly our pleasure to be able to do the full honor God gives us to get to know and care for all these kids when they’re at their most vulnerable.”
Giving testament to the value of the effort is J.W. Lightsey, who turns 11 in May and was fostered and then adopted by the Lightseys. “It’s nice to know you don’t have to keep moving from here to there,” he said, “and that you can settle and not have everything ready to go.”
Lightsey noted the pride she has for her biological daughter and her adopted foster son. “Lily Ann introduces the rules to our new foster children, because she wants people to be safe,” Lightsey said, “and J.W. likes to get to know them and play with them because he wants them to be loved and not lonely.”
Rinaldi is the force behind the establishment of clothes and supplies closets for foster families. Her county licensing agency is the only one that has the position she fills, so the Empty Closets at all three locations are open to foster families county wide.
“About 50 percent of foster families don’t renew their licenses after the first year because they’re already burned out,” Rinaldi said. “The system is broken, and there’s no support. So, as an agency we said, Let’s create the support piece, rather than recruit, train, license and then they leave. Let’s add support services, and Empty Closet is just one piece of that.”
Mendy Whittemore is a volunteer at the Empty Closet at Temple Terrace United Methodist Church, 5030 East Bush Blvd., and Lisa Turner, a foster parent, is a volunteer at the Empty Closet at South Tampa Fellowship Church in Davis Islands, 97 Biscayne Ave. Both women were on hand for the Empty Closet opening in Riverview, which Rinaldi cemented in partnership with the Riverview United Methodist Church community.
“We talked with Janet Rinaldi, and she said there was a big need for this service in this area,” said Gary Floyd, chairman of the Riverview church’s board of trustees. He noted the church’s commitment to community service, with two weekly meetings for Narcotics Anonymous, one for Alcoholics Anonymous, hot meals served Tuesdays with Metropolitan Ministries and bagged food distributed Tuesdays and Thursdays through the church’s Restore food pantry with Feeding Tampa Bay.
“That’s what churches are supposed to do,” Floyd said. “Our mission in life is to help those less fortunate than we are.”
The Empty Closet at Riverview United Methodist sits in a building that is less like a closet and much more like a boutique. Restored and run by West Florida Foster Care Services, with volunteer assistance from churchgoers and others, the building is complete with childcare necessities.
New clothes line the racks, with used clothes, sorted, washed and minus anything “that’s the least bit gross,” Rinaldi said. Also available are shoes, socks, diapers, toys, books, baby food, formula, hygiene materials and gear, including strollers, car seats and high chairs.
“Our goal is to give out new clothes because we want to ‘level up’ for these kids,” Rinaldi said. “When a child comes into care and comes with nothing, the family can get 14 outfits, or two weeks’ worth of clothes.”
As for filling the need for foster parents county wide, “If your heart is there, then you need to just go and say yes,” said Turner, of Davis Islands. “God will equip you if he calls you to do it.”
Donations are accepted during Empty Closet hours of operation, which for the Riverview location, 8002 U.S. 301 South, is Thursdays, 10 a.m. to noon. Rinaldi said there also will be hours one Saturday a month, yet to be determined. For more, call Rinaldi at 727-919-1786. Visit and call West Florida Foster Care Services at www.wffcs.org and 813-386-1838. Visit and call Riverview United Methodist Church at www.riverviewflumc.org and 813-677-5995.