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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Watergate Wins Award
By Debra Shannon
February 9, 2003
West Boca · Carmen Feyzioglu is the first to admit that she has a big mouth.
And that may be one of the reasons Watergate Mobile Home Park has been selected as Boca Raton's First Neighborhood of Promise by the West Boca Coalition for Kids.
For 11 years this feisty woman, who is from Puerto Rico, has lived in this west Boca Raton neighborhood of 400 mobile homes nestled between gated communities south of Palmetto Park Road and west of U.S. 441.
Watergate fell into disrepair over the years. The original entrance disappeared and some absentee landlords and homeowners abandoned their upkeep, according to some residents.
"This is a community where many of the kids had no direction, they did not know what was right or wrong, they didn't know they have a choice for a better life," Feyzioglu said.
Like many of the families living here, Feyzioglu is single-handedly rearing her son, Ozean Feyzioglu, 13. She is also unofficially mentoring 62 children who found themselves on her doorstep. She has fed, clothed and sheltered many children who say they had no one else to talk to.
"I cry with them, we pray together -- my house is open 24/7. They can come anytime because they know I am there for them. I'm not taking the place of any mom, but I have a mission, I believe in God, and he gives this to me," she said.
Josh Brunner, 15, said Feyziouglu's influence helped turned his life around.
"She is one of my friends," Brunner said. "She helps us stay off the streets and put me in sports."
Her neighbor, Pat Wilkins, is often called her "her right-hand lady," said Rita Thrasher, executive director of Boca Raton's Promise, the Alliance For Youth, who has taken a keen interest in the community as a coalition member.
The alliance was founded in 1998 by 22 community leaders who signed a pledge to provide resources for all youth in greater Boca Raton. It is part of the national movement founded by Secretary of State Colin Powell.
The alliance, along with the West Boca Medical Center, the Youth Activities Center, the Jewish Federation, Ruth Rales Jewish Family Services, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, Ultimate Martial Arts and Delbo Cartoon Camp, form the coalition.
"Carmen is a gem in west Boca, and we are looking for more Carmens in neighborhoods ...," Thrasher said. "It is just the first of four or five neighborhood centers the coalition wants to establish."
Thrasher said it's no secret that Feyzioglu's home is a haven for troubled children.
"Some call her Mother Teresa because she works cleaning houses, yet she spends her money helping these kids," she said.
Feyzioglu said Watergate attracted government and community leaders about three years ago after she called the Sheriff's Office and said: "I need some help."
Soon, deputies arrived at her door and they began brainstorming on ways to make the community a safer place.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 2001, the coalition asked the Sheriff's Office to pick a neighborhood needing youth activities. Watergate came to mind, a partnership was formed and they made five promises to Watergate children.
The first was to provide summer activities.
"That promise has developed into a weekly Friday Friends program at Loggers' Run Middle School," Thrasher said.
Volunteer mentors help about 20 children in the program with homework, take them to water parks, polo matches, Miami Dolphins football games and to the circus.
"West Boca has neglected their young people for far too long," Thrasher said.
"These kids now know that people do care about them and these activities create intergenerational bonding. While the Sheriff's Office concentrates on helping the kids with athletic activities and law-enforcement information, the coalition focuses on mental health issues."
A free licensed family counselor is available to the children.
In September, the Sheriff's Office started a new Police Athletic League at Coral Sunset Elementary School to teach football and basketball.
Marshall Deason, 11, said Feyzioglu "makes us all come together as friends and we all get along at the [football] games."
"These children are in need of services and we need to get them involved," Palm Beach County Sheriff's Deputy Sgt. Craig Kolnik said. "Many of their parents are in a bad cycle of domestic violence, drinking and drug problems and even they can't break it. Now, they are saying, `Hey, we need to straighten out our own lives.'"
For Wilkins' son, Stephen Pelletier, 12, the football team and all this attention has made him feel good about himself.
"It helped me by staying out of trouble, and now I just have a good time with my friends," he said.
The children participate in educational seminars in the workplace and in community projects such as developing an entrepreneur club to raise money to attend special events.
Now, there are three deputies assigned to Watergate, and projects such as improved street lighting, sidewalks and traffic calming issues are being addressed because of their input. A new park is being planned nearby.
"Kids need some kind of guidance, and they have to get off the street and have something to do without getting into trouble," said Catherine Hackett, 87, who has lived there for 20 years. "I don't blame the kids; I blame the parents that don't know what the heck they are doing."
For more information on Boca Raton's Promise, The Alliance For Youth, call 561-395-3063; 561-488-7323 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Web site at www.bocaratonspromise.org.