SARASOTA, Fla. — When Kristi Service, a sales associate with DWELL Real Estate in Sarasota, was about five years old, she received a life lesson she never forgot, all because her mom made a huge birthday sheet cake for one of the foster children who lived with her family.
“I had a tantrum. He was getting the same cake I usually get, and I was jealous,” says Service, whose parents were foster parents until she was eight years old. “I will never forget what my mom told me. She said that this child may never be celebrated again and that, under her roof, he would get her love. I was young, but it was a game changer for me,” she says.
That life lesson motivated Service to become a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) five years ago. “We always had a huge household full of children when I was young, and my parents told me that our only role is to love those children,” she recalls. “I’m single so being a foster parent isn’t suitable for me right now.”
“Parents get appointed an attorney each, and the GAL also has an attorney to represent the program,” she says. When a child is removed from the home, it’s usually due to neglect or alcohol and drug abuse. But, the parents work with a case plan to reunify the family. In the five years since Service became a GAL, she’s worked with seven children.
“I seem to connect with teenagers, so many times I’ll get older children. However, right now I have a sibling case with a five-year-old and an infant,” she says.
As their GAL, Service meets with the child and serves as a steady presence in that child’s life. “What they’re going through with their family is so traumatic for the child,” she explains. “A GAL gets to come in, form a relationship, let the child know he or she is special, loved and also be a constant caring person through this process. The five-year-old I’m working with has moved three times in five months. I’m the constant in her life.”
Service says she learned from her parents that the difference between success and failure in these children’s lives is having someone look them in the eyes and say – ‘I believe in you.’
“A lot of these children don’t have one person cheering them on,” she adds. “That’s why I make that my job. I’m the voice in the court system, but I’m also looking at what these children need in life. For example, I had one teenager who needed a dermatologist in the worst way. She was in middle school and her acne was impacting her life. Once we got her treated, everything changed. It was a simple thing, but no one else would have asked for that.”
For Service, the connection doesn’t always end when the case ends. She still gets together with one teen, who was reunited with her mom. “We all meet for dinner, go to the beach, attend church sometimes and celebrate birthdays together,” she says. “If you want to continue the relationship, you can.”
Aside from knowing she impacted a child’s life, the most rewarding part of being a GAL, Service says, is “seeing the reunification of parents and child. I try to be a cheerleader to the parent as well.”
In fact, in one case, a parent wasn’t able to get over an addiction on her own. She had lost her job and was losing her apartment. “I encouraged her to go through the Salvation Army’s live-in addiction treatment program. The woman is now 19 months sober and told me that if it weren’t for my encouragement, she wouldn’t have her family back. You have to remember, the parents are struggling too. I get to say, ‘I believe in you,’ to them as well,” she says.
Although Service has only been a GAL for five years, she’s already seen how her involvement makes a difference. “One child I worked with was adopted by her foster family. She then called me and told me that she’s no longer a foster child and, because of me, she wants to become a GAL. If you can have a positive impact in someone’s life, they can pay it forward,” she says. “Instead of an angry kid who feels like his parents were taken from him, you make him feel loved, and his whole world changes.”
The flexibility of real estate means it’s the perfect kind of career to allow time for community volunteerism, she says. Service encourages other real estate professionals to get involved in the GAL program.
“It’s not a huge investment in time, but it’s very rewarding. You can make a life-changing impact on a child and their family,” she says.
“I look at it like a boat’s wake. In my wake, I want it to be full of love. I want to have a positive impact. Honestly, this is the least I can do,” says Service. “Let’s flood the GAL system in Florida with responsible and caring Realtors® who desire to give back to their community!”