Hometown Hero Making a Difference in a Child’s Life Realtor® serves as a court-appointed advocate for Bay County minors.
When Jennifer Bowman delivered a huge bag of toys and gifts to several needy children at Christmastime, she realized that she got as much joy out of it as they did. She was thrilled that the youngest child got a bike—and pleased that the 17-year-old boy in the group wasn’t left out.
“Not many people donate items for older kids,” says Bowman, a sales associate with Shimmering Sands Realty in Panama City Beach. “One of the companies in town gave him a $250 gift certificate for the mall and a $125 Best Buy gift certificate.”
The holidays were especially happy for the 17-year-old, says Bowman. Her work was done. He would be leaving foster care and returning home.
As a volunteer with Florida’s Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program, Bowman speaks out—in court—onbehalf of minor children in Bay County who are caught up in custody disputes or abuse/neglect cases.
According to Bowman, the boy had been taken from his family because of domestic violence. But his parents were serious about getting their son back, so they enrolled in an alcohol awareness program and other classes to help restore their parental rights. “We gave testimony that we felt it was safe enough for him to return home,” says Bowman. “We [essentially] brought the family back together and got the court to discharge their case. It was their best Christmas present.”
Although there are situations in which there’s no alternative to removing a child from his or her home, Bowman says, the goal of the GAL Program is to help repair and reunite troubled families. “Most children are too young to know what’s best for them,” she says. “They all want their mom and dad regardless of what their parents have done.”
GALs meet with doctors, teachers, family members, neighbors and anyone else who can give them an accurate picture of what’s going on in a child’s life. “We want to do what’s best for the child, so we have to present a report each time we go to court, to let the judge know how the kids are doing,” says Bowman. “The kids attach to you [during the process], and they know you’re there for them.
“Some parents just don’t know where to turn,” adds Bowman, “so we try to find resources in the community. A lot of them know they messed up, and they want what’s best for their children.”
Bowman heard about the GAL program when she and her husband were adopting their two youngest children three years ago. She wanted to give something back to her community and felt that serving as a GAL was a perfect fit. “As real estate professionals, we plan our days,” she says. “I can block out several hours to see the kids in my cases because I have that flexibility.” She visits with each child assigned to her at least once a month. To date, she has handled about six cases involving a total of 20 children.
“Serving as a GAL is probably the next most rewarding thing I’ve ever done besides being a parent,” says Bowman.