For Good: Mary Lee's House in Tampa provides one-stop-shop of services for children in need

With four grown children of her own and 10 grandkids, longtime Tampa resident Mary Lee Farrior has a full plate in the nurturing department.

So it would seem. But this petite woman with unstoppable energy also has a heart the size of Kansas. Any child within hugging distance gets some of her loving.

And for those who are hurting, thanks to Farrior, they also have a sanctuary.

She’s the founder of Mary Lee’s House, a nonprofit assessment center on North Armenia in Tampa. In 2008, she founded the refuge for abused and neglected children, who are helped by a network of child advocacy professionals all working under one roof. They include prosecutors, mental-health counselors, nutrition experts, social workers and law enforcement.

As many as 3,000 children annually are helped by one or more of the five agencies that work out of this child-friendly environment in a 33,000-square-foot building near St. Joseph’s Hospital. And it comes at no better time: With an average of more than 12,000 abuse reports each year, Hillsborough County ranks third in the state for reported cases of child abuse and neglect.

Farrior’s passion and action for addressing this grave issue has earned her distinctive local accolades, including the Junior League of Tampa Bay Lifetime Commitment Award in 2007 and the 2014 Citizen of the Year by the Tampa Metro Civitans. Richard Gonzmart, the previous winner, noted that Farrior embodies the principles of faith, peace, passion and integrity; using her “God-given energy to help anyone” she comes across.

And now, her work is being recognized statewide. Gov. Rick Scott just announced Farrior as one of the three new inductees into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame. They were selected out of group of 10 nominees by the Florida Commission on the Status of Women for their work in making “significant improvements in life for women and all citizens of Florida.”

“I’m really just overwhelmed by all of this,” says Farrior, 77. “Something like this doesn’t happen because of one person. It’s been teamwork since day one.”

But Farrior is the one who got it all started.

Building support for a concept

Prior to the development of Mary Lee’s House – a name selected by the nonprofit’s board of directors – abused and neglected children were shuttled all over town to receive services necessary for each particular case. The notion that a child, already traumatized, had to be taken to hospital waiting rooms and police stations broke Farrior’s heart. She envisioned a one-stop facility and began the groundwork of building support for the concept.

She already had a track record for getting things done. Several years earlier, Farrior founded Reach Out Community Services in south Tampa, which provides mental health counseling to troubled kids. Her church, Palma Ceia Presbyterian, provided free space; her then-pastor, the Rev. Kathy Conner, gave her full support.
“But I knew we needed to go the next step. And it would have to be a big step to make a major difference,” Farrior recalls. She enlisted her son Rex, an attorney, in finding property suitable for a non-residential facility in an area where services were most needed. It took about a year to find the right location – a former laundry that was razed for the new building.

In the meantime, Farrior and a team of supporters worked their connections in raising money for the newly formed nonprofit. As the project took shape, the volunteers delved into putting together those touches that would make the house warm, inviting and safe. They picked out child-sized furniture, rocking chairs, fountains and a life-sized tree with spreading branches for the lobby, where children could wait in comfort.

Today, the two-story, state-of-the-art structure provides a range of services by its tenants. Upstairs, there’s the University of South Florida Child Protection Team, which gives risk assessments evaluations, along with physical and sexual abuse exams, and The Children’s Advocacy Center, where forensic interviews are conducted and live closed-circuit testimonies are taken so children don’t have to face their alleged perpetrators in court. On the lower level, counseling is offered by the Corbett Trauma Center (a division of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay), and health and well-being programs are provided by the Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County and Success 4 Kids & Families.
“We like to say our purpose is that the downstairs will put the upstairs out of business,” Farrior says.

It takes a community of caregivers

Community support has been above and beyond what Farrior ever dreamed possible. Mary Lee’s House has a nearly $1 million yearly budget – of which more than 90 percent comes from individual and corporate donations. And that small coalition of volunteers from the early days has now mushroomed to a volunteer auxiliary of 255. One of the group’s many responsibilities: Keeping the house’s closet filled with new clothing, shoes, backpacks, diapers, toiletries and other items to give to the children who need them.

The nonprofit also hosts one major fundraiser a year. Its 4th annual Celebrity Golf Classic takes place March 2 at Avila Golf and Country Club, and will include Gary Sheffield, Casey Weldon, Reidel Anthony, Tino Martinez and Vinnie Testeverde. To sign up, visit the website for Mary Lee's House.

Kim Miller, executive director, says she can’t think of a better ambassador than the founder to keep the community aware of the vital role served by Mary Lee’s House.

“She has humility, grace and so much love,” Miller says. “Most of time, she comes in here quietly and finds the kids who need her the most, spending time just reading or talking with them. I’ve never meet anyone quite like her.”

Farrior typically deflects any special attention put on her. Instead, she wants to talk about the kids who come through the doors who need attention and love. She wants to see more facilities like this that offer comprehensive services under one roof, in cities all over the country. Most of all, she wants to wipe out that statistic that shows 8,000 American children suffer from abuse each day – and five of those will not survive.

Farrior hopes that a recently launched billboard campaign will make a difference, at least in Florida. For those who suspect a child has been a victim of abuse or neglect, they are asked to call the Florida Abuse hotline at 800-96-ABUSE. Tips can be made anonymously.

While proud of the impact Mary Lee’s House is making, Farrior says she never forgets the main architect behind the operation.

“If it wasn’t for the man upstairs,” she says, pointing her finger heavenward, “none of this could have happened. None of it. I’ve just been blessed to be part of it.”

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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