Siesta couple creates place of love, support for foster kids and their families
Graci McGillicuddy turned her passion for children’s welfare into a welcoming haven for foster children.
| 5:00 a.m. November 9, 2022
Graci McGillicuddy’s life took on a new focus in 1986 when she heard about the June 30, 1986, beating death of 18-month-old Shannon Nicole Cook. Floridians were shocked when the baby’s body was found outside a hospital in rural Arcadia. At the time, Shannon was one of 18,000 children under “protective supervision” in the state of Florida’s child welfare program. Her mother and stepfather were charged with her murder.
“I was traumatized. At that time, I didn’t even know child abuse existed because I was raised in a loving family,” says McGillicuddy, who lives on Siesta Key with her husband, Dennis McGillicuddy, an attorney and entrepreneur.
McGillicuddy jumped into action, learning all she could about the cycle of child abuse and the state’s child welfare system. She ultimately came to the realization that abused and neglected kids needed — and deserved — better treatment and interventions that recognized their trauma. In the years to follow she rocked babies, served in leadership roles at regional and state-level children protection agencies and lobbied political leaders.
In 2016, she teamed up with her husband to go out into the community and raise $20 million to start All Star Children’s Foundation. This unique “campus of hope and healing” in Sarasota is a haven where foster children live in comfort, receive trauma-informed treatment and learn to thrive. All Star welcomed its first families onto the new campus in July 2020 and has been home to more than 40 foster children — from babies to teens — since.
“It’s turned out beyond my wildest dreams and expectations,” says McGillicuddy.
She adds that her hope is that All Star Children’s Foundation will become a model for foster care across the nation. “I would like to replicate what we are doing here throughout the country.”
The trauma-focused treatment that children at All Star receive is a critical part of their journey to wellness. Research shows that children placed in foster care have experienced multiple forms of trauma, including homelessness, domestic violence, sexual and physical abuse, neglect, caregiver substance use and caregiver mental health issues.
All Star offers trauma-informed care with six core programs: evidence-based mental health services; child and family systems navigation; engagement with the biological family; support for foster parents; trauma training; and recreational enrichment for the kids, including tutoring, music and art. All Star has also trained more than 100 foster parents and helps foster families engage with the community.
Noah Riner, All Star’s CEO, says All Star’s comprehensive approach to foster care is already making a difference and improving outcomes for the children and families served. Sometimes the courts decide that children in foster care are unable to reunify with their birth families due to numerous factors. “We work so that each child leaving our campus goes to a safe, stable home with caregivers who understand and are able to meet the child’s needs,” he says.
Dennis McGillicuddy says that he remains in awe of Graci’s tireless energy and commitment. “She has devoted her life to the safety of children, particularly abused children. All Star would not be here without her. It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears over the years, and she’s inspired all of us.”