Editor’s Note: This story is part of our Celebrate Community series. Each week, we feature nonprofit organizations improving North Okaloosa residents’ quality of life.

CRESTVIEW — Belief Foundation Inc. mentors at-risk 8- to 17-year-olds from Baker, Crestview and Laurel Hill.

The nonprofit, established by Rosa Rivera of Crestview, works with schools and police to identify those students and provides a positive platform for them.

"I saw that we didn't have a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club," Rivera said, explaining BFI’s origin. “The end of those resources led to low-income children having fewer supervised outlets for recreation after school, since their parents have to work.”

‘YOU’VE GOT TO PRACTICE’

The organization provides numerous services. For instance, Dr. Naomi Barnes, a retired educator, runs BFI’s Belief Foundation Academy.

She and volunteers — including high school, FAMU Pharmacy School and Northwest Florida Collegiate High School students seeking service hours — tutor at-risk students in English, math, science, social studies and creative writing. Sessions run from 3-5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays at 175 Industrial Drive.

"Most of them think learning is hard, but they go and practice basketball, football, ballet and piano … when it comes to basic skills, they don't practice,” Barnes said.

“I let them know that learning is fun. It's not difficult, but you've got to practice.”

‘WE FOLLOW THROUGH’

When trouble arises, BFI steps in.

“We gave out about 3,000 bracelets with a hotline number, so these children call the hotline and we respond before the police officers get there,” Rivera said. “If it's a situation that I may not be able to handle (such as drug related or domestic violence) the police are then called in and take care of the situation, but we follow through with that child.”

For those already in the Department of Juvenile Justice, Rivera provides group therapy and mentors.

"Kids who were kicked out of regular schools for whatever reason, they were sent to an alternate program,” Rivera said. “They have to go all the way to Fort Walton Beach, or they have to take online classes, and they don't want to go online.

"With Dr. Barnes — an excellent educator — if we can get this child groomed and properly taught and structured, the school will accept them back ... instead of an alternate school or online class.”

AVOIDING ‘THE SYSTEM’

Also of concern is at-risk children’s vulnerability to get in trouble without even trying.

"We have over 375 homeless children in Crestview,” Rivera said. “We try to find homes for them so they can get situated, get them in schools again. And not allowing them to get into the system for 'no reason.’”

One "no reason" example? Missing keys.  

"(They) were sitting outside on Main Street,” Rivera said of two children. “The police came and wanted to take them to (the Department of Children and Families). They were sitting there because they lost their keys to get in their home, and their parents worked in Niceville. They weren't doing anything wrong … They called the BFI hotline.”

Rivera said she contacted the parents, drove the children to a parent's job site to pick up a house key, and returned the kids to Crestview.

BFI also helps before matters rise to police level.

"When there's a situation in the school, the principal calls Dr. Barnes to the school for guidance before the kid gets into trouble. We have a permission to go into the school to intervene," Rivera said.

It all supports BFI’s name and core mission: "We want them to believe in themselves first,” Barnes said.

“We want to be able to help them and know that they can be whatever they desire to be.”