At 16, she went to church a lot. But to her father’s way of thinking, that meant she must have been doing something wrong.
He came home after a night of drinking and kicked her out. Her mother, fearful, did not intervene. Stephanie Roshell, now 46, was on her own from that point on, she said.
“I slept in my car, under the school lights,” she said. And she promised herself something:
“I vowed that if I ever got back up on my feet, I would give back.”
In early 2005, she met the man who would become her partner in that promise: Herbert Roshell, a pastor and longtime Pasco County Schools employee. Their courtship revolved around planning their outreach.
“We were called to work with broken people, especially youth,” Stephanie Roshell said. “It’s just our passion.”
In late 2005, nine months after they met, Stephanie and Herbert married and founded Operation Unwrap A Smile.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that there are about 50,000 youth living on the streets in the United States. According to the group, “anecdotal evidence suggests that the problem is real and growing, but national data is scarce."
According to the alliance, most homeless assistance programs—"largely designed for adults"—lack the capacity to offer early intervention and prevention to displaced youth. Lacking a home, a support system and access to resources leaves them with little opportunity.
That’s where Operation Unwrap A Smile comes in. The organization provides intervention and support to at-risk youth throughout the Tampa Bay area, building relationships—and self-esteem—to show them there’s a way out.
The organization’s name carries meaning, the Roshells said: It’s an operation because “we want it to be an ongoing process.”
As for the rest, well, every time they give someone a gift, “we wanted to see a smile,” Stephanie Roshell said.
The couple fund the operation themselves, with the help of donations. They get a lot of items donated, but not much financial assistance, Herbert Roshell said. But just when they think they’re not going to make it work that month, it ends up working out somehow, he said.
“People ask us how we do it,” Stephanie Roshell said. “It’s just God.”
The Roshells both work full time. Stephanie is an administrative assistant at Citibank in Tampa. Herbert, a recent recipient of the Volunteer Service Award from the U.S. President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, is the plant manager at Zephyrhills Elementary School. He also is the captain for Land O’ Lakes Toys for Tots, as well as the senior pastor at Inspirational Praise & Worship Center in Tampa.
Still, the 501c3 organization the duo run from their Land O’ Lakes home in their spare time supports hundreds of displaced children and homeless teens throughout Pasco County, and they will go as far south as Arcadia and as far north as Tallahassee if there is a need, Stephanie Roshell said.
Operation Unwrap A Smile partners with several shelters and philanthropic organizations in the Bay area, which support about 300 youths in total. The Roshells also are given names of neighborhood families and foster families who need assistance.
The Roshells travel to two or three locations a week to meet with the kids. Herbert takes a simple story and makes it applicable to them, Stephanie Roshell said. “Then we just spend time with them.”
“We build it off Biblical principles, “ Herbert Roshell said.
They use what they call the “peer out” method, he said. “We can watch their faces and tell when a topic hits on what they’re struggling with.
“The kids’ faces will tell their problems.”
In one activity, the Roshells have the kids make their own boxes, crumple up papers that signify past hurts or issues, put the lid on the box, wrap it up tight —then give it to someone else in the group.
Some of them have a hard time putting the lid on, much less wrapping it and giving it away. That’s when Stephanie Roshell will share her own story of letting go.
“These things were tragic, but we make them share, just to teach them you have to let somebody in,” Herbert Roshell said.
While Herbert is the “softy,” Stephanie is “their reality check,” she said.
If there are anger or behavior issues, the couple aims to knock down the walls: “What bricks made you this way?” she will ask.
“I tell them ‘Don’t bleed everywhere you go. If everywhere you go, you’re bleeding your issues, no one is going to want to deal with you,’” Stephanie Roshell said.
Though it’s not ideal, a displaced atmosphere is not an excuse to quit, give up or misbehave, she tells them. And though someone else may not be in the same situation, those are that person's cards; you “play the hand you’re dealt.”
The lessons, some accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation, are followed up with a present for each child.
"The gifts are the way we break through," Herbert Roshell said. As the gifts are opened, the child opens up, too.
"Stephanie wraps every gift herself,” he said.
“It’s therapy for me,” Stephanie Roshell said. “As I’m wrapping them, I’m thinking about that child, just kind of praying over them.”
And she doesn’t cut any corners in the process.
“Presentation is everything. Everything we do is trying to build that child’s self-esteem," she said.
“And every package has to have a bow. Your bow says it’s sealed with love.”
Though the gifts are not necessarily wrapped with a particular child in mind, often, the Roshells said, the gift is a perfect match.
One afternoon on his way out of the house, Herbert Roshell grabbed an art set his wife wrapped earlier that day. Later, he met a young girl who couldn’t sleep at night.
When she opened the art set, “she just broke,” Stephanie Roshell said. The girl used to draw at night to soothe herself to sleep, she told him, but she didn’t have supplies anymore.
“And there he was with a 50-piece art set,” Stephanie Roshell said.
It’s important to the Roshells that they not just drop off a gift one time and never see the child again. It’s also important to them that the gifts they give the children are quality items.
“I don’t like to shop at the dollar store for them, because they already feel like they’re only worth a dollar,” Stephanie Roshell said.
When she shows up with nice things, they’ll often ask, “What’s the catch?,” she said.
“I’ll tell you next month when I come back to see you,” she tells them. And when she shows up, they’re surprised and happy—and a bond begins to form.
The Roshells have worked with some children for more than six years, they said. That initial gift is just the beginning of the relationship the Roshells forge with local children who tend to "fall under the radar."
Operation Unwrap A Smile has grown as the number of local children needing the organization's help has increased.