As a former teacher and assistant site administrator in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Sandra Shank saw first-hand the loss of hope among youth in foster care. And her understanding of the challenge wasn’t just as an observer, it was deeply personal. Her own sister lost custody of three children, one of whom Shank was able to take in and raise.
Shank knew many children in the foster system lacked a stable, loving and supportive environment—and she knew it was more than an overburdened public system could provide. That realization led her to found Abundant Life Ministries–Hope House Inc., a nonprofit residential home for boys aged 13 to 17 in foster care.
From the start, her vision for the home was clear, but the means to achieve it were not. Fate or faith, the means soon appeared. When Shank told an employee at her former church that God had laid it upon her heart to open a home for boys, a fellow worshiper overheard her and said he had the resources to manage the processes and paperwork. That same week, Shank received notification of military disability compensation owed to her, providing the funds to purchase a home. Hope House was full within weeks of opening in 2003.
Shank’s goal is to provide all aspects of care for its residents—physical, emotional and social. She develops and directs educational, administrative and recreational activities, including interviewing potential residents and managing the staff of 24/7 caregivers. While administrative activities are time-consuming, Shank also focuses on making Hope House a positive experience for its residents. In July of this year, she took the boys on a four-day trip to Orlando to enjoy some summer fun.
“There are not a lot of people like Sandra. She is the one person I can still count on.” –Blake Meeks, former resident of Hope House
Typically, boys come to Hope House after repeated moves within the foster care system. Among the criteria for recommendation to ALM–HHI are a history of running away or homelessness, sexual abuse, inappropriate interpersonal behavior and exposure to human trafficking. The average stay is 18 months, and as required by the state, children “age out” of the system at 18 and must leave the facility by midnight the previous day.
Finding a Way to Move People
“She has been there for every kid,” says former Hope House resident Blake Meeks. “She could have given up on me, but she understood when I lashed out and wasn’t quick to judge.” Meeks came to Hope House at age 17. After aging out of the system, he attended a military academy and earned his GED, which he attributes to Shank’s influence. Meeks has since married and now works for a railroad. If he’d never met Shank or lived at Hope House, he says, he'd likely be “in prison or dead.”
During his time at Hope House, Meeks appreciated the way Shank spoke to the young residents. “She never talked down to anyone but helped them see there’s a better way to go about things,” he says. “She doesn’t raise her voice, but you’ll get an earful. She’ll pick through every rock and stone to get through to you. Sandra always finds a way to move people.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” says Dan Browne, board chair of ALM–HHI. “These children have been through hell. Turning them around is tough, but they are nothing but respectful. They just want a good life, and Sandra is 100% hands-on helping make that happen.”
Shank is also a natural at garnering community support. “Sandra is good at communicating her vision,” says Browne. “She shows people the vision, and they gravitate toward her. There’s no fluff; it’s just who she is.”
“She leads quietly but never forces her agenda,” says Lindsay Elliott, executive director with Flagler Habitat for Humanity in Florida. “It’s personal with her. She makes you want to be a part of whatever she’s a part of, and if she’s involved, you know it’s a good cause.”
Striving for a Holistic Approach
Being a real estate professional wasn’t part of Shank’s original career plan, but after agreeing to be a study buddy for a friend, she decided to take the licensing test in 2017. Soon after, a mentor encouraged her to apply for a seat on the county’s affordable housing committee. Her appointment exposed Shank to resources and contacts that would expand her vision. Beyond providing a nurturing place for boys in foster care, she saw the need for holistic family support services that included affordable housing—to enable families to stay together. Looking forward, ALM–HHI hopes to break ground on a 28-unit, two- and three-bedroom affordable housing complex in 2024.
“God always knows how to meet Sandra,” quips Shank of her many chance encounters throughout her life with people who became allies, supporters, and mentors—people helping realize her vision—including her husband, whom she met via a Rotary International connection.
Eventually, Shank hopes ALM–HHI will be a model for other communities, a holistic approach to foster care that includes housing for family reunification. Having a voice in affordable housing, “that’s the power of being a REALTOR®,” says Shank, who participated in lobbying at Florida Realtors®’ Great American REALTOR® Days in Tallahassee last April. “When the ecosystem is in balance, it operates at its best.”
Sandra Shank of Palm Coast, Fla., is a sales associate with TAG Ventures Real Estate Services Co. and founder of Abundant Life Ministries–Hope House Inc.