Family picnic PIXABAY

MOUNT VERNON — Parenting requires love and a desire to protect and nurture children. Foster parenting calls for an extra dose of love and compassion, empathy and understanding.

Uncertainly is one of the many challenges foster parents face. They might have the child for several weeks, months, or even years -- or only a few days.

Statistics show about 51% of children eventually reunite with their parents. Until they do, foster parents deal with meetings, court dates, and changes in the plan.

Another stressor is the aftermath of birth-family visits. Not only do foster parents have to adapt to potentially sudden changes in schedules, but they also have to provide emotional support to the child when a birth parent doesn't show up or the visit doesn't go well.

It's common for foster children to have behavioral or emotional issues stemming from abuse or neglect. Many also require frequent dental, doctor, psychotherapy, or other special-needs visits.

All of this takes a toll on the physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional status of foster parents. Add in transporting children to appointments or after-school activities — or saying goodbye and the sense of loss when a child leaves the home — and it's understandable why burnout is such a huge issue for foster parents.

Throughout Knox, Richland, and Ashland counties, several churches have stepped forward to provide the support and encouragement foster families need to continue. Working through Fostering Family Ministries and The Forgotten Initiative, care teams reach out to foster parents, letting them know they are not alone.

At the same time, care team members are showing fruits of the spirit, sharing Jesus' love, and growing in their faith.

Fostering Family Ministries: “Open your home, your heart, your hand”

Executive Director Sherry Bouquet started Fostering Family Ministries (FFM) in Ashland County in May 2016 with the goals of recruiting foster parents and developing care teams to support those foster families. She brought the organization to Knox County in May 2020.

For Bouquet, the issue is straightforward. Foster families need help, but they can't always say what form that help should take. The church wants to give support but doesn't always know what to do.

“That's where God called us, to be that bridge,” she said. “We provide the path. Those families are doing amazing frontline work.”

Bouquet said since its inception, other counties have asked for FFM's help.

“But we need churches to partner with us,” she said. “Every county has its own personality. In Ashland, we had a very close association with the Ashland County Ministerial Association. Right off the bat we had 20 to 30 active churches I could work with.

“It's very different in Knox,” she continued. “Knox County has a network of ministers but no network of churches.”

Sherry Bouquet

Sherry Bouquet

Bouquet connected with Ray Guajardo, a social worker in the foster/adoption unit at Knox County Job & Family Services, via phone and Zoom calls. She met him in July 2020 when COVID restrictions loosened.

She trained three lay leaders at three churches in October 2020. One, McKenzie Doup at New Life Nazarene, has since also stepped into the role of Knox County coordinator for FFM.

Bouquet's message to the church community: “Open your home, open your heart and become part of a care team, open your hand and be willing to give financially or for specific needs.”

The job is to make it easier to get into the foster care ministry and open their eyes to the fact they're already doing these things, Bouquet said.

"It's in their wheelhouse,” she said. “I don't think there's a church on this planet that should be ignoring foster care ministry. The question is, what are you called to do to serve? If you're not called to foster, there's something else you can easily do.

“That's a beautiful thing to see, to see people step into opportunities. Everybody can do something."

Opportunities include being a child mentor, whether it's doing something once or twice a month with the child or staying at home with the children and letting the foster parents have a night out.

“But you're not just babysitting. You're building a relationship,” Bouquet said. “If you're meeting material needs, introduce yourself, reach out and see what you can do. Invite them for a picnic in the park. It's not just material things but relationships — that's what makes the difference.”

Bouquet wants to see more people serving on care teams so foster or kinship families have proper support. Her second goal is to make sure each county has more foster homes available waiting for children rather than an abundance of children waiting for homes.

This, she said, not only ensures good in-county placement of children, but it also takes the pressure off frontline social workers.

“They're able to say which one will be the best fit for the child and families, not just placing them with the first one that's open,” she said.

In Ashland County, it's working. The county is approaching 40 foster families, a more than 700% increase since 2016.

“We are very, very thankful. There's always attrition, so there's always the need to recruit,” she said.

Bouquet noted that community crises such as drugs are skyrocketing and leading to dramatically increased numbers of foster children.

“That's really an indictment on people of faith and our lack of doing what Jesus called us to do,” she said. “That doesn't mean that we'll eradicate (these crises), but we could.

“The church is called on to lean into these crises because we understand that it's a way to demonstrate faith by helping widows and orphans. We know the church can help those families.”

Bouquet noted that the care teams' support for the children doesn't necessarily end when they return to their biological family.

“The highest calling of any of our care teams is to follow a child home and give them support,” she said. “Maybe for three months, maybe adopt them for a lifetime.

“Research shows that if a child has at least one stable adult in their life, it can change the trajectory of their life. I am praying they get more than one stable adult. Actually, we have the privilege by how we act and how we love to point them to a heavenly father who will love them and care for them. And that trumps anything we can do.”

Foster Families First Aid Kit Drive

Breanne Kirby, foster care coordinator at Knox County JFS, left, and Brittany Clark, Knox County coordinator for The Forgotten Initiative, display the first-aid kits collected for foster families in Knox County.

New Life Church: “Excited for what God has in store”

In the spring of 2020, McKenzie Doup of Mount Vernon's New Life Nazarene Church reached out to Knox County JFS, seeking to learn more about the local foster care needs and how community members like her can help.

JFS connected her to Bouquet, who told Doup about the work FFM does connecting church care teams to the foster care community. Doup presented the idea to the pastors and a group of foster families at New Life.

“The idea was very well received by the pastors and families,” Doup said. “I learned that we have four to five current foster families and at least one current kinship family at our church, and they were excited about the idea of receiving support form their church.”

Doup got trained through FFM to become a foster care ministry leader, also called a Church Champion, and began to recruit and train volunteers and set up care teams. The foster care ministry at New Life is called “Foster Life.”

“Four families were receptive and enthusiastic about receiving help, while the fifth family was hesitant and ended up not wanting any additional help,” Doup said. “Our care teams are around three volunteers each, and we hope to grow that to five.”

Doup said the hope is to have extra trained volunteers available to build a team around a local foster or kinship family outside of the church.

“Each family receives regular meals, has an alternate caregiver who is available to help with childcare, and a team leader who checks in about prayer requests and offers encouragement,” Doup said. “The whole team is committed to praying regularly for their family.”

In addition to the care teams, New Life offers a foster and kinship support group that meets one Sunday morning a month. It is open to foster and kinship families in the community as well as in the church. New Life has added another Church Champion who leads the support group.

“We have also done some other projects, including a gift card drive in December for our foster families, putting together a 'journey bag' that caseworkers can give a child who enters care, and helping pull together some beds for a local family that was reunifying with their sons,” Doup said. “Foster Life is still in its early stages, and we are excited for what God has in store.”

In January 2021, Doup started working for FFM on a part-time basis as the Knox County coordinator. She meets with church leaders or members who are interested in learning more and helps with training and coaching Church Champions.

“One of the things that drew me to FFM was how they empower the local church by connecting them to the local needs and equipping the church to meet them,” Doup said. “The church is not often aware of the issues and needs in the local foster care community, and FFM increases awareness and helps the church use the tools it already has to help meet those needs.”

Doup likes how FFM promotes the church connecting with and building relationships with foster and kinship families and the children in their care as well as birth families and caseworkers.

“I also like how FFM can unify the local churches together toward the common cause of helping the foster care community. I think unity between churches is something we can always use more of,” Doup said.

“In Knox County, we currently have New Life and LifePoint — they are in the early stages of starting their ministry — involved with FFM. We'd love to grow that number, as the larger the network of local churches we have working together, the more effective we can be at meeting the needs of the whole foster care community here in Knox County.”

Although New Life's foster care ministry is still young, it's having an effect.

“In general, the supported foster families have expressed that fostering is such a hard, overwhelming, and often lonely experience, but with the support they are receiving, it has alleviated some of that heavy load,” Doup said.

Knox County JFS: “We are fortunate … people don't have to do that kind of thing.”

Guajardo and Breanne Kirby, foster care coordinator at Knox County JFS, see first-hand the stress that foster families go through.

foster families gift basket

Volunteers with The Forgotten Initiative provided gift baskets to social workers in the Children Services department at Knox County Job & Family Services in July 2020.

“We've had families asking over the years 'are there support groups,' so we are hoping we can tap into [FFM's] support,” Guajardo said. “The hope and dream is that we are going to be able to help in foster homes with caregiver and material needs and recruit foster homes in the process.”

When Guajardo and Kirby spoke with Knox Pages in August, Knox JFS had custodial care of 116 children. Twenty of them were in foster homes.

“These kids face significant abuse and trauma, whatever that might look like,” Guarjardo said. “The No. 1 goal is to reunify families. You can't be a foster parent and do well without getting attached. When you listen to these families, it's hard for them.”

Kirby said childcare is a big concern.

“Finding people to help for foster parents to have a break once in a while,” she said. “Not just everyone can help. They have to have training, and you can't bring kids to training.

“A lot of (families) just need a friend and sounding board.”

Kirby said in addition to emotional issues and shifting family dynamics, foster parents deal with uncertainty whether they're a good caregiver and meeting the children's safety needs.

“New Life was the first one who stepped up to the plate and said 'Hey, how can we help?' ” she said.

Of the partnership with New Life Nazarene and Fostering Family Ministries, Guajardo said, “This is still so new. We are not sure if this is going to be a beneficial situation or fizzle out. The hope is it will be more (churches) than New Life. At this point it's too soon to tell.

“The lack of emotional support does lead to burnout. I hope that we can have some sort of tangible evidence that this will work out. If we didn't have someone like [McKenzie Doup], it wouldn't pan out. We are fortunate for people like Sherry and McKenzie to be willing to help a public agency. People don't have to do that kind of thing.”

Crossroads Church: “A heart for children”

Church Champion Darlene Rudrick of Crossroads Community Church in Richland County said the partnership with Fostering Family Ministries is “just another natural step for us.”

“We already had a connection to Richland County Children Services and a children's auxiliary,” she said, adding that the church has served at-risk and under-served children for 17 years. “We have a heart for children in our community, so this was natural when Sherry approached me.”

Crossroads has three community groups (38 volunteers) caring for three families. Two of the families are large, at times reaching up to 11 people in the home. As the community groups (care teams) meet for Bible study to increase inward growth, they increase their outward growth by reaching out and supporting a foster family.

That support includes providing weekly meals and weekly prayer.

Darlene Rudrick Foster families

Darlene Rudrick

“That prayer piece and just knowing someone is there to listen is the most important piece,” Rudrick said. “They are grateful for the meals, but it's just that encouragement that they can do this, they can just keep fostering even when it gets hard, that's so important.”

As the care teams and families become more comfortable with each other, the teams have found other ways to help. One care team packed lunches for a family involved in soccer and attended the match.

Another family moved, and the care team entertained the kids while the parents unpacked the boxes.

“It's just those little touches,” Rudrick said. “One text to their care team leader, and they know they have this team behind them.

“We are certainly seeing the families really feel like this makes a big difference in their ability to foster,” she said.

Jesse and Savannah Rider, members of Crossroads Community Church, have fostered twice, two years the first time. They are 10 months into their second fostering.

“Time is always the biggest factor, trying to get everyone to appointments, practices, and visits,” Jesse said via email.

The Mansfield couple is one of the families supported by a Crossorads care team.

“They provide weekly meals for our family. This gives us a night to eat together and be together,” he wrote.

Rudrick said that Crossroads has not faced many obstacles in reaching out to foster families.

“Sometimes getting a group together and training takes a little bit of time, between identifying the family and getting trained,” she said. “Even then it's a time thing, not really a barrier. Perhaps another (barrier) is families recognizing that they can't do it all and that help would be nice.”

Foster Families Stuck at home boxes

Through The Forgotten Initiative, a support organization for foster families, volunteers created Stuck-at-home boxes for foster families last year during the COVID-19 lockdown.

The Forgotten Initiative: “This the mission field.”

Brittany Clark brought The Forgotten Initiative to Knox County in 2019. Like Bouquet of FFM, Clark feels her role is to be a bridge between the county agency and the church.

“My opinion is that the foster community is the mission field of the United States, and anyone who is a believer understands we have a role to play in the U.S. with the orphans,” she said, noting that they're not called orphans anymore, they're called foster kids.

“In the Third World, orphans are visible. Our orphans are just the kid next door, and you might not even know they are orphans. We have to go to them. They are not going to come to us.

“Once the Lord opened my eyes, I realized there's not much difference. They might look different. I realized this is the mission field. I don't have to go to Uganda; I can stay right here.”

The Forgotten Initiative launched with a first-aid kit drive in March 2020. A Christmas gift card drive provided $25 gift cards to all foster teens in Knox County. In addition, Clark sends foster parents birthday cards, tries to get them gifts, and organized and delivered “Stuck at Home” boxes during COVID.

In February 2021, volunteers made journey bags to give to children entering foster care. The bags include clothes, hygiene items, a personal item, and other comfort items.

She also gives agency workers appreciation baskets and monthly “treats” to let them know they are not alone.

“Letting them know they are just as important as foster parents are,” she explained.

Brittany Matt Clark Forgotten Initiative

Matt and Brittany Clark

With the rate of children entering foster care increasing 85% over the past five years, Clark said there's a need for more foster parents, especially for those children age 8 and older.

Noting there's sometimes a romantic idea of rescuing an infant when parents consider fostering, Clark said, “The true needs are for middle and high school families.”

“The hardest thing is starting. I talk to so many people who want to (foster) but there are schedules, space, and other obstacles,” she said. “Once you get your feet wet, the Lord carries you through. It's that day-to-day leaning on Him.”

Having said that, Clark said if people feel intimidated about becoming a foster parent, they know that now is not the right time, or that it will never be right for them to foster, that's OK.

“There is something everyone can do to support the foster community,” she said. “It could be helping with drives, or mowing a lawn, or taking a meal to a foster family. There's always respite and other types of support to give to families.

“Mentorship is a wonderful way to make a difference. Any act of service that benefits a foster family can make a difference. So don't feel like it's all or nothing. Think about what you like to do and figure out a way to offer that to the foster community.”

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