New Children's Board CEO Rebecca Bacon talks priority community issues, vision for future

This story is produced through an underwriting agreement between the Children's Board of Hillsborough County and 83 Degrees Media to spotlight the programs and individuals who make a difference in the lives of children and families in Hillsborough County.
The Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, created as a special taxing district in 1988 to fund programs that help children and families in the community, has tapped a veteran social worker and longtime employee as its new executive director.
Rebecca Bacon started with the agency in 2007, having spent more than a dozen years in related fields.

“Overall, the Children’s Board funds quality programs to ensure children are healthy and safe, developmentally on track, ready to learn and succeed and have family support,’’ says Bacon, explaining the mission.

In 2022, the Children’s Board invested more than $34.3 million in services for children and their families, funding 102 programs to address community needs. The programs served more than 178,000 children and their families, and support services were used by 3,325 professionals. The board also operates seven Family Resource Centers around the county where families can find resources to help them meet those needs.

The agency’s mission is especially challenging these days, Bacon says, as families struggle to afford the rising cost of housing and other necessities.

Bacon, who started in her new job Oct. 1, talked with 83 Degrees about her career and the Children’s Board.

How do you feel about taking on this job?

I would not have signed up for this challenge had I not had a lot of love and commitment for this agency. I’ve been here 16 years and I feel like we have a strong team of very talented people and some good structure in place.  That made me feel confident in accepting this challenge.  We also have some wonderful community partners. There are really a lot of caring individuals across the county who want to work together to help make this the best place to raise children.

What drew you to this work?

When I was growing up, I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession. I grew up in Michigan and I got a degree in psychology.  When I moved to Florida, the first job I ended up in was working in children’s mental health, so it kind of connected my passion to supporting children. That’s where it started.

I have a full career of working in a variety of settings for children and families. I started in children’s mental health. I worked in child abuse investigations when I moved to Tampa (for the Department of Children and Families). From there I went to work in the school setting, also for the Department of Children and Families, but as one of the voluntary family services counselors.  After that, I started working in some of the Children’s Board-funded programs.

What is your vision for the future?

We’ve been investing funds for many years in early intervention and prevention to support families and prevent the need for more costly interventions, and I see that continuing to be our focus. We need to get services out there early for families so that they don’t need the more complex systems of child welfare or mental health.  We want to stay in front of it.

That said, our county is experiencing tremendous growth, so it’s important that we continue to see where the families are, what their biggest needs are, and if there are under-served areas or under-served parts of the population where we need to strategically direct funds.

The Children’s Board met with families and caregivers throughout the county for a 2023 Town Hall report to address critical needs. What were the major concerns expressed?

There were several concerns, but the ones that rose to the top of the list were children’s and caregivers’ mental health, the shortage of quality early learning options, and affordable housing. As far as early learning is concerned, improving services for children with exceptional needs is an area that has come up. Increasing parental support systems is another critical need.

How are those needs being addressed?

We distributed the report to different stakeholders in the community, including the county and the city, businesses, and other organizations. Not all the critical issues identified in the report fall directly within our mission however we can partner with other agencies to address them. We did use information from the town hall report in our recent release of competitive investment grants.

At the end of November, we released a large request for proposals for our investment grants, our largest grants, which are $1 million to $3 million. We released over $32 million to ask for nonprofits in the community to apply to address some of these critical needs, which are listed in our request for proposals.

How does an investment grant work?

The taxpayer money comes to the Children’s Board, and we’re tasked with being good stewards of those taxpayer dollars. We conduct a competitive request for proposals process that the nonprofit agencies apply through for funding. We have community review teams, where those proposals are reviewed and scored and recommended for funding.  We want to ensure that the agencies that sign up to use our funding have the capacity and ability to deliver quality programs.

What more needs to be done to address the critical needs?

I think we need to continue to convene other partners and work with those other partners that are addressing issues around children and families so that we can be efficient with our resources.

We also need to continue to increase the overall awareness of the Children’s Board and make sure that families in the community know about the resources. We have so many different programs in the community at no cost to families. We want to encourage families to visit our Family Resource Centers, as those are an excellent place for families to get resources and be connected to the other programs that we fund. We also want to continue to provide support to the nonprofit agencies that we partner with to deliver the services and strengthen our partnerships with them.

You were manager of the Administrative Services Organization within the agency. What is that?

Twenty years ago, the Children’s Board decided to invest in what is known as the ASO, or Administrative Services Organization. The ASO is a special program operated by the Children’s Board to manage flexible funds, which are funds that pay for a variety of services when there is no other way to pay.

The funds are accessed through case managers; they’re the ones working on a family support plan with the family based on their individual goals and their needs and their preferences. They can use these flexible funds to purchase services on behalf of families.  The families get to select the services that are most important to them from the providers that they choose. 

In the present day, families are just trying to get by – to stay in their housing, get healthy food for their children, and make sure that they have safe, quality childcare so that they can work. I feel like we’re much more focused on those basics, especially considering what’s happened with the housing market and the economy. 

We’ve seen that with the flexible funding we manage through our ASO, that a good percentage of the expenditures are in the housing category, just meeting those basic needs. It’s definitely a hard time for families.

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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.