Pasco Reunification Day sees smiling faces, happy tears, and balloon animals

Courthouses don’t typically have a reputation for being a ton of fun.

On Friday June 16 though, the Robert D. Sumner Judicial Center in Dade City felt more like a carnival than a place for criminal offenders – complete with face painters, balloon animals, and everyone’s favorite Disney princesses.

“Our eighth annual Family Reunification Celebration is designed to honor the hundreds of parents in our community who have successfully completed tasks necessary to be reunited with their children,” explained Brian Bostick, the executive director of Eckerd Kids.

Speaking to a crowd of a hundred or so, Bostick and other community leaders – including Celeste Fernandez, the community development administrator for Florida’s Department of Children and Families, Judge Lynn Tepper, Judge James Stearns and Marni Keller, VP of YFA – congratulated the newly reunified parents.

Over the past year, each had transformed their lives in order to provide a safe, stable and loving home for their children.

Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Homelessness. Everyone in the Dade City courtroom had a unique story, but a common goal.

“Reunification Days like this make our jobs worth it,” said Celeste Fernandez. “I want to congratulate all the parents in the room, and to tell you that your work has not gone unnoticed.”

Of the dozens of families celebrated, two were selected to speak, including Kristina  Gonzalez.

Alternating between tears and laughter, she shared her story.

“When I switched from my drug of choice to alcoholism,” she told the courtroom, “slowly but surely everything began to fall apart. I found myself in a homeless shelter in Dade City called Sunrise.”

Because of her dire situation Gonzalez’s son infant son was placed into foster care while his mother worked to get back on her feet. Fast forward 10 months and the pair have been reunited.

For her part, Gonzalez is drug-free, employed, and considering attending college in the fall — and her son, who’s grown into a beautiful bright-eyed boy — is just focused about being a kid.

“To the foster family who was there for my babies when I wasn’t able to be, thank you,” added Gonzalez. “You not only loved my children like your own, you accepted me and had faith in me.”

Pasco Reunification Day was one of three events throughout the Tampa Bay area in the month of June.

Each year between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Eckerd Kids along with other community partners coordinate a celebration to honor the hard work of parents being reunited with their children. In 2016 alone, 173 reunifications have occurred in Pasco County.