MILTON — The National Youth Advocate Program is a not-for-profit organization that recruits and educates parents on providing foster homes to children experiencing challenges including medical issues, mental illness, substance abuse and challenging behaviors.

The organization has served in Northwest Florida since March and has an office in Pensacola; however, NYAP employees travel to all counties between Walton and Escambia to work with foster families.

Representatives from the NYAP’s Northwest Florida office met at Mama Lattes in Milton to have a cup of coffee and talk about foster parenting children with exceptional needs.

“We serve children from birth to 18, but specialize in teenagers and older youth who have medical, mental health, behavioral and developmental needs,” NYAP therapist Sara Passaro said. “We provide in-home therapy to our kids to stabilize and prevent disruptions.”

NYAP works with FamiliesFirst Network — a partner of the Department of Children and Families that provides foster care services — connecting foster children to therapy needs. NYAP has provided services since 1978, but has only been in Florida since 2008. NYAP also partners with Guardian Ad Litem which provides a voice for foster children in their time of need.

“We’re here to kind of bridge that gap,” NYAP program supervisor Jamilyn Ruckman said. “It’s something that has been very successful in other parts of the state over the last 10 years, and so we’re trying to recreate that in this area. It’s our only location anywhere in north Florida.”

FamiliesFirst Network determines what foster children need special homes where the foster parents are equipped to deal with specific issues, according to Ruckman.

NYAP offers classes for parents on medical, mental health and behavioral issues.

“We want to make sure the foster parents and the child are set up for success from start to finish,” Ruckman said. “We are a non-stop machine here. If there’s something that comes up in the middle of the night, you’re going to call us. If there’s something you don’t know how to handle, you’re going to call us.”

NYAP focuses on helping foster parents understand trauma, because all children in foster care have experienced some level of trauma from abuse, neglect or abandonment. It greatly affects their development, according to Ruckman.

“We really work to make sure foster parents understand what trauma looks like, understand the outcomes of that and make sure we are continually educating them, taking it kid by kid of how and why you’re seeing this and then what we are going to do together to help the child become healthier,” Ruckman said.

The main goal of NYAP is to make sure the children have the best possible outcome and become successful and happy adults, according to Passaro.

“We’re not just a shelter for kids,” Ruckman said. “We are working on the child’s development and growth. We are looking at what is going to impact them long term… really growing healthy kids, not just providing shelter for them.”

Ruckman said there has been a great response from the local community with individuals and businesses donating goods, time, food and locations to host events.

“This community cares about each other."