Gov. Rick Scott recognized a Jacksonville couple Tuesday with the “Volunteer Florida Champion of Service Award” for their contributions to the Florida Guardian ad Litem program.
Henry and Charlean Lawton are a retired married couple who began volunteering with the 4th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem program in November 2012.
Their dedication to the program and the children it serves moved program Director Melinda Brown to nominate the Lawtons for the award.
“It is an honor to present this award to Henry and Charlean Lawton, who are outstanding examples of the thousands of dedicated advocates representing children through the Florida Guardian ad Litem program,” Scott said in a news release.
“The Lawtons are helping ensure that the children in their community can live up to their full potential, so they can get a great education and pursue their dreams here in Florida,” he said.
The Lawtons said they were surprised to receive the award because of the short time they have volunteered with the program.
“They have been great volunteers that have shown a commitment to the program and the children. Whenever we have a situation we need stabilized, they are always willing to take it on,” said James Minter, assistant program director.
The award honors individuals and groups for outstanding volunteer efforts.
“The award was humbling, but it’s not about us. There are a lot of people working to address the needs of the child. We are just a part of that,” said Charlean Lawton.
The Florida Guardian ad Litem Program is invoked by a court whenever a child is removed from a parent by the Department of Children and Families because a child was abused, neglected, abandoned or could not be kept safe in their home. The program currently represents approximately 21,350 children through 8,500 certified volunteers.
The local program is serving 926 children in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties with the help of 341 active volunteers.
The Lawtons had experience working with children — Henry as an ordained minister and Charlean through her church. Serving as a guardians has been a learning experience, they said.
“At times you just want to scream because you want to do something for the child, but it just can’t be done,” said Henry Lawton.
The program has become addictive for the couple.
“When you start (participating in the program), it’s difficult not to do it, we always want to do more,” said Charlean Lawton.
They have served as guardians for 11 children and are working on adoptions for four others.
The Lawtons shared stories of children asking for socks and underwear for Christmas or for someone to adopt them for Christmas.
“You’ve got to find a way to not think about it all the time, because you can,” said Henry Lawton.
Minter said the number of kids in the program has been decreasing, but the severity of the abuse has been much worse than last year. The children come from homes where their parents may abuse drugs or alcohol, they are victims of or witness domestic abuse or they are abandoned.
“We are getting a lot of people saying,’We don’t want them anymore,’” said Minter.
Henry Lawton talked about not wanting to say anything at the awards presentation with the governor, but changed his mind.
“I had to because the program is just that important. When children can’t speak for themselves, an adult needs to be there to speak for them,” he said.
“When you are the parent, you can’t take that lightly. It’s a life-changing experience,” he said.
No special background is required to volunteer and staff and legal support are provided.
Volunteers must be at least 21 years of age and successfully complete 30 hours of certification training, six hours annually of re-certification training, spend an average of 10 hours per month working on the case and make at least a one-year commitment to the program.