A scared 7-year-old girl boards a plane alone in Haiti. She is flying to the United States to meet her baby sister and see her mother for the first time in years. Danielle (not her real name) was born in Haiti and raised by her godparents while her single mom tried to make a better life in America.
She traveled back and forth until her mother remarried. Danielle cherishes her memories of the next three years, living as an American family, playing with her sister, and going to the amusement park on weekends. But her dream life was short-lived. When her mother became seriously ill and her stepfather left, Danielle became the primary caregiver. She remembers escorting her mom to doctor appointments, and coming home from school to feed her, never realizing how sick her mother really was. “I just figured this was a part of life,” she says.
Tragically, when Danielle was 10, her mother died. With no other family to take them in, she and her sister became wards of the state. Initially, they were placed in a foster home together, but as Danielle recalls, after her 5-year-old sister was accused of stealing cheese from the family, she was sent away. She ultimately got “lost in the system,” and the two never saw each other again.
Although many foster parents provide dedicated, loving homes, Danielle always felt like a burden and misfit. She was a star student at school, but she bounced from one temporary home to another.
“I didn’t feel wanted,” she admits. “I physically remember being scared and nervous around people.” The more she guarded herself, the more she withdrew into books. “You’re so weird,” one foster mom used to tell her. Her words cut deep but they would not define her. Danielle ran away from two different homes, and eventually married at 19.
A Common Story
Today, a successful nurse practitioner in Memphis, Danielle is studying to become a doctor. But her story is all too familiar for almost half a million kids in the U.S. foster/adoptive system. They are cast into harsh circumstances at a very early age, stigmatized by stories of poverty, illness, crime, drugs, alcohol — even sex trafficking. It can be a lonely life for children with no tether, and the plot thickens as they age out of the system.
According to the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, foster kids have a 25 percent dropout rate from high school, and only 6 percent graduate college. Without intervention, unemployment, unwed pregnancies, or substance abuse also spike. But sometimes, just one person or family who walks alongside a foster child can help that story end differently.
Locking Arms, Working Together
In step with a grassroots movement nationwide, Memphis churches and community groups are beginning to awaken to a greater sense of responsibility toward the needs of foster kids and their families. “It’s not a new need,” says David Jordan, executive director of Agape Child and Family Services. “It’s more how the community is beginning to respond to the need.”
Agape is partnering with Mark Ottinger, director of Fellowship Memphis’ Orphan Care Ministry called 1:17, to build a network of volunteers. Together they sponsor the Mid-South Alliance, a monthly luncheon open to anyone interested in serving foster children. “The need is so big, we need to lock arms and do this together,” says Ottinger.
If you want to help a hurting child but you’re not in a position to foster or adopt, there are many ways you can reach out as a family. Volunteering not only teaches children the value of helping others, it brings a new dimension of cohesion to families who serve.
Agape’s website presents three levels of commitment, and volunteers are steered accordingly during screening. At the “Participation” level, you can help with a party, organize a diaper drive, or play with children while mothers attend class in Agape’s Families in Transition (FIT) program. “That’s a real good way to get your feet wet and it’s a good way for whole families to participate,” says Lori Humber, volunteer coordinator at Agape.
At the “Engagement” level, families can lend a hand at Parents’ Night Out or help at area clothes closets. And at the “Ownership” level, you’re plugging in on a monthly or weekly basis, possibly as a mentor or tutor.
“There are service opportunities available to all age groups so there’s a place for everyone,” says Kelly Cates, organizer of a quarterly Parents Night Out event at White Station Church of Christ. “We desperately need volunteers.”
Foster parents often have a hard time finding sitters, so the goal is to have monthly PNO’s citywide, says Cates. “We need churches that are equipped and ready across the board,” adds Ottinger.
But good intentions without follow-through can do more harm than good, notes Jordan. There is an investment of time, training, and trust, which is justifiably guarded by overburdened caseworkers and other leaders.
Helping Older Teens
Organizations also focus on sustaining young adults who are considered homeless when they transition out of the system. Last year, local volunteers provided laptops, dorm furniture, and other supplies for 19 students entering college, but without lasting personal connections, some “fell off the radar,” Ottinger says. Beyond organized programs, genuine, enduring friendships are what really impacts lives. “There are opportunities to connect with the foster families and kids,” says Ottinger, “…a natural, organic relationship based on having a heart for these kids.”
Danielle, now divorced with grown children, wishes she’d had an aunt or a guardian looking after her when she was a foster child. “I would have been nurtured, I would have been loved,” she says. “I would have had a foundation and structure.” She says she might not have married so young or dropped out of college at the time.
Ultimately, she returned to school. “I chose nursing because [my mother’s] nurses were so exceptionally kind to me and my sister,” she says. Those nurses will never know the profound impact their kindness had on Danielle’s life.
How To Get Involved
Families and groups can:
• Participate in a play-group in the FIT program
• Help with Parents’ Night Out
• Provide Christmas gifts for children
• Donate to or work at a clothes closet (baby items and children’s clothing are always needed)
• Donate to adoption or foster child tuition grants
• Provide respite care for foster families
• Mentor youth or single moms
• Tutor students after school
For more information, contact:
1:17 (Fellowship Memphis’ foster/adoption support ministry) • Mark Ottinger, 230-0082
Agape Child and Family Services • Lori Humber, 323-3600 • Allow ample time for screening and volunteer training.