By ROGER MOONEY
On a Friday morning in March 2020, a judge granted Sharon Strickland temporary custody of her great-granddaughter, Savannah.
The little girl, 8 at the time, had been living in unsanitary conditions, Strickland said, with an elderly relative who was in failing health. Savannah often went hungry.
According to Sharon, the family dynamic has been complicated and the children’s mother lost parental rights to all four of her daughters.
The youngest great-grandchild, Karlee, was already living with Strickland, having been placed there by the state four months earlier. Karlee arrived at Strickland’s doorstep at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday in early November 2019, carrying all her possessions in a backpack and a trash bag. She was 3.
Savannah came with even less. Just the clothes she wore that day to school – a shirt that was missing a few buttons and tattered pants. No socks.
For years, Strickland tried to gain custody of her great-granddaughters.
“Nobody was standing up for these girls and these girls needed a voice,” Sharon said. “I said, ‘I’m the voice.’”
And Judge John D. Galluzzo of the 18th Judicial Court in Seminole County, Florida listened. He ordered Savannah to live with Sharon for one week and scheduled another hearing for the following Friday.
Savannah moved into her “Gram’s” clean house in South Daytona Beach, where she ate three meals a day, wore new clothes, slept in a real bed, and played with her little sister.
At the end of that week, Savannah found herself in front of the judge again for a custody hearing. He asked Savannah if she wanted to return to her old home or remain with her sister and great-grandmother.
“I want to live with my great-grandma,” Savannah answered without hesitation.
For nearly a year, Savannah has lived with her Gram. When recently asked why she picked her great-grandmother, Savannah said, “I have my own room. My Gram is nice to me.”
Strickland was thrilled. Now 65, she finds herself again in the role of mother after empty nesting for more than 20 years.
“God has a plan for all of us,” she said. “He placed me in this position for a reason.”
Strickland’s goal is to adopt Savannah and Karlee as well as a third great-granddaughter.
A fourth sister lives with her biological father and is doing well, Strickland said.
Strickland sees a better life for Savannah and Karlee, ones that include clean clothes, nutritious meals and a quality education.
“I’m going to make it happen,” Strickland said.
‘A good fit’
Once the girls moved in, Strickland learned about the income-based scholarships managed by Step Up For Students from the Child Protective Home Study Specialist in Volusia county. She applied and received the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for Savannah. With the opportunity to give her great- granddaughters a faith-based education, she decided on Warner Christian Academy, a Pre-K through 12 private school in South Daytona. The school is five minutes from home, eight minutes from where she works and came highly recommended.
The girls enrolled before this school year. Savannah, now 9, is in second grade. Karlee, 4, is in VPK and isn’t yet old enough to use the scholarship program.
Nealy Walton is the elementary school principal at Warner Christian. She listened intently as Strickland told Savannah’s story when they first met last spring. Education was not a point of emphasis in Savannah’s prior home, and she struggled in a neighborhood school, especially with reading. Stickland wanted Savannah to repeat the second grade.
But there was more. She had trust issues when it came to adults. She used to check each day to make sure no one took her clothes and toys. She hid food around the house.
Strickland once found a piece of paper on which Savannah wrote, “I hate you!” Strickland asked her about it and was shocked by Savannah’s answer.
“She was talking about herself. At 8 years old, that’s concerning. That’s very concerning,” Strickland said.
Both girls receive counseling.
“It might take years for them to feel good,” Strickland said.
As Strickland talked, one name came to Walton’s mind: Debbie Adams. She has taught second grade at Warner Christian for 43 years. During that time, Adams has developed the ability to read a student, to learn his or her interests, habits, and hang-ups. What makes them happy. What makes them mad. What frightens them. She knows some students are dealing with far greater problems then the lessons being taught in class.
“I can’t help them if I don’t know where they have been and what they need,” Adams said. “Once you get that, the education will come.”
Savannah and Adams, Walton said, “are a good fit.”
And given the spiritual foundation of the school and the unstable lives Savannah and Karlee led before living with their great-grandmother, Walton said, “It’s no accident they are here. The Lord definitely created an opportunity for them to be here. It’s not by luck.”
‘A brave little girl’
Adams said Savannah gives the best bear hugs.
“Yes, I do,” Savannah said.
She loves her new school, because Adams is “super nice,” and she has a lot of friends.
The smaller class sizes at Warner Christian allow for more one-on-one time between Savannah and Adams. Her grades have improved, especially in reading.
“If that scholarship wasn’t there, I don’t know, she would be struggling,” Strickland said.
The biggest part of Savannah’s success was learning to trust adults. She had been let down by so many during her first eight years. The young girl doesn’t know who her father is.
“We live in a tough world, and she has had to deal with an even tougher world,” Adams said. “For me, I think these kids just want to know you love them. They want to know you understand.”
Once Savannah accepted the love from Adams, Walton and the rest of the Warner Christian staff, she began to emerge from the protective shell she was forced to build around herself.
“She’s more content,” Adams said. “She’s happier with herself, because she is settled in. She works hard. She’s proud of what she does, so her inner dialogue that she has with herself has improved tremendously. When she first came in, it was more of a negative thing and life was just tough, and she’s a very sensitive girl. She was hard on herself, but she’s had a lot of baggage to overcome.
“Her and I working together, we have a good bond at this point, a lot of respect for each other. She’s a brave little girl, I’ll tell ya. She’s a very loving girl.”
Faith is a big part of the teacher-student relationship at Warner Christian. That’s what Strickland was looking for when she chose the school. She loves helping Savannah with her homework, especially when it comes to learning bible verses. She loves that Karlee sits next to Savannah and learns the verses, too.
“This (Florida Tax Credit Scholarship) has just been a blessing to me, because there is no way I could have afforded to send either one of them there to get the education they are going to receive on what I make,” said Strickland, an administrative assistant at The House Next Door, a family counseling center in Daytona Beach.
Conversations and laughs
One night while saying prayers at bedtime, Savannah turned to her Gram and asked, “Am I ever going to leave here?
“No,” Strickland said.
“Good,” Savannah said. “I don’t ever want to go back.”
Strickland, who has been divorced since 1982 and lived alone for 23 years before she gained custody of Karlee, is adjusting to the sights and sounds of having young children in the house.
“Here we go again,” she said. “It’s the whole aspect of learning each one of them. I’ve had a year with Karlee. She’s still tricking me, because she’ll eat green beans sometimes and sometimes, she won’t.”
Karlee loves Cheerios. Savannah won’t eat lunch meat. Both girls love to dance. Strickland said she thinks Savannah will someday be some type of leader.
Strickland welcomes the noise and the mess of a house filled with clothes and toys. The worst part about living alone all those years, she said, was eating dinner by herself.
“Now I have conversations and laughs and goofiness while we’re eating,” she said. “That’s something to be thankful for.”
Roger Mooney, marketing communications manager, can be reached at email@example.com.