by Caroline Gabsewics
Taking children to the mall or an amusement park for the day might seem like a simple task. But these are not children who have a mom and a dad or a house to call home.
Hundreds of foster children in Duval County are waiting to be adopted, and CBS-47 co-anchor Dawn Lopez helps tell the stories of these children in her weekly segment, “Jacksonville’s Children.”
Lopez, who has been with the station for eight years, was asked to spearhead a segment about two years ago that was called “Family Fridays” before it was changed to “Jacksonville’s Children.” The project required Lopez to take a child out for the day and tell his or her story.
“I went into this thinking that we would play video games and I would hear how much they want a family,” she said.
But Lopez soon found out there was much more to it than that. The first child she interviewed was 14 years old at the time and his name was Darren. Lopez, a counselor and a psychiatrist took Darren to the mall.
“I was trying to communicate with him and he seemed cold and distant,” she said. “The psychiatrist pulled me aside and told me that ‘you may be looking for warm and fuzzy, but he was prostituted as a child and was taught to steal food for his family.’”
Lopez broke down. She couldn’t believe what she had just heard.
“I thought, I don’t want to do this. It was too much reality for me at the moment,” she said. “It is heartbreaking to hear that about a child who came into this world perfect and someone did that to him.
“At that moment, I knew this was more than taking a child out for a day.”
Lopez was still unsure if she wanted to continue with the segment, but the psychiatrist told her that she had proven that they needed her for the segment. She asked Lopez not to give up because there are hundreds like Darren, she said.
After Lopez was able to get some information from Darren while they were at the mall, the psychiatrist told her that she made it easy for Darren to talk.
“When I spend time with these kids, they talk to me and people see that and respond to it,” she said. “For some reason, they [the children] talk to me.”
Lopez has done about 70-75 stories over the past two years, including updates on the children. Family Support Services and Judge David Gooding give Lopez recommendations as to whom she can interview.
“There have been three dozen adoptions already and we are very happy with that,” she said. “It has been a joy and people stop me all the time and say how much they love the segment.”
For many of the foster children, the trip they take with Lopez may be the first time they have been to an amusement park, an arcade or the mall.
“We play games and eat, and I am forced to eat ice cream,” she said. “They are so appreciative that someone spent time with them and considered their feelings. That really matters.”
Lopez crams into roller coasters that are meant for toddlers. She goes go-cart racing, throws the football and plays video games.
“I have done a lot of things that I don’t like to do, but they have a good time and it makes the kids comfortable,” said Lopez. “We do what we need to do.”
Aside from having fun, Lopez works very hard to tell the stories of these children.
“I take it so seriously. Darren was a reality check,” she said. “It is my obligation to each child to try and do what we can to get these kids homes.”
It is a challenge every week, because each child has a different story.
“Each story is uniquely different. Some have lost their parents in accidents, or their parents got sick or they have financial problems. Not all come from abuse,” she said. “It is scary to think about how many are on that fragile line.”
Lopez added that sometimes she asks some delicate questions, but for the most part the children open up and tell her everything.
“A child is a child ... they all need a home,” she said. “They are straight ‘A’ kids, athletic, articulate and kind. They are little gentlemen who open the door for me.”
Most of the time, the couple hours Lopez spends with them one day is the only time she will see them. But, Lopez said, sometimes she will get invited to adoption hearings.
“I get to see where they are now, and that makes me cry,” she said. “When they get adopted it makes what I do so worthwhile. It makes me so happy.”
Lopez also does follow-up interviews after children have been adopted. She did a follow-up interview with two sisters, Octavia and Tianiah, and their new family. Jasmine Inglemon adopted the sisters after seeing their segment on TV. Their official adoption hearing was on Jan. 17.
“Children know when you are being gentle and they know when you care,” said Lopez. “I hope they feel my heart and understand what we are doing.”
“Jacksonville’s Children” airs on CBS-47 on Mondays at noon and on Fridays at 5:30 p.m.