When I was a kid, my parents ran a children’s home for three years. Then in college, I volunteered at a large group home. Later, my husband and I became house parents at the very same children’s home I lived in as a young teen. From my early teenage years and into adulthood, I had an opportunity that few others have had the chance to share—observing foster kids from a variety of viewpoints: as a friend, volunteer, and caretaker.
Family is a complicated topic when it comes to a group home situation. As much as we may try, a group home will always feel more like an institution than a home. No one can feel at rest when common spaces are video-monitored. A kid may be able to convince himself that the alarmed windows and hallways keep him safe, but in reality, they prevent him from running to comforting arms when he had a nightmare. Children cannot find stability when there is a rotating staff caring for the house, leaving them unsure of who they will wake up to see. These homes provide foster kids with physical safety, but they are unable to give each child the individualized care that is needed.
My husband and I helped care for up to ten children at a time, two of them being our own. Technically, we worked at an emergency shelter where kids would live while waiting to be placed in a traditional foster family, but rarely was their time at the group home short. We did our best to parent each child as if they were ours but the trauma they had experienced, and the abandonment they felt, made it an impossible task. How do you care for the kid who bottles everything up and hides when at the same moment the volatile kid has reached the boiling point and is demanding immediate intervention? How do you help five kids with homework, when the baby is sick, the four-year-old is throwing a tantrum, dinner needs to be made, and the momentarily stable kids are feeling ignored? How can the need for comprehensive family care be satisfied for these hurting and confused kids?
Two people are not enough to care for ten traumatized children; foster kids are desperate for an attentive village. The church has the opportunity to be the attentive village, to help provide individualized care or provide the space for the caretakers to do so.
Volunteering Still Leaves an Unrealized Opportunity
As I matured into adulthood and became a mother, I witnessed the efforts of the group home volunteers with new eyes. We worked with a large spectrum of volunteers from churches and businesses, to individual families; all of these groups understood that the foster care system needs help. It is fairly easy to get people to offer help to foster kids. However, when volunteers step into group home spaces they don’t always realize their limited understanding of the foster children and the organization limits their ability to meet the real needs of the children they hope to help. The desire to help must be joined by a heart that is ready to humbly learn the best ways to serve.
Regularly, I had conversations with organizations that were looking to volunteer at the children’s home. I would ask them for people to help with homework, for individuals to volunteer as mentors, for their group to donate fresh produce, to send people to help clean the shed we never had time to deal with, or to facilitate the removal of a junk pile that was becoming a hazard. However, a majority of the time I was told something along the lines of: “Well we would prefer to throw a cupcake decorating party.” My conversations revolved around an attitude of “Here’s what I can do for you” when what we needed was for volunteers to come with the spirit of “How can I help?”
Now that my husband is the pastor of a church and we are on the side of providing volunteers, I better understand the struggle to offer opportunities that engage people’s interests. No matter how noble the task, people will not show up to help if it isn’t a job that is desired. This revealed to me the delicate balance between having a need and getting it filled. None of the group home volunteers who worked with us had malicious intentions, they just wanted to have a fun and satisfying cupcake decorating moment to make a foster kid smile. What the volunteers didn’t understand was that I had children with teeth literally rotting out of their heads and the dentist said no more sweets. They didn’t see the children who were refusing to do homework only to be rewarded the same day with a party. They didn’t understand that these kids were beginning to develop unhealthy values due to the constant cycle of parties and presents offered to them by a majority of the volunteers.
Volunteering with the Heart of Humility
Group homes are a place that the church is desperately needed. Frequently, the church only volunteers to help with parties for birthdays and holidays. Moments of celebration are important and can teach a child who is accustomed to neglect that she has value. Life, however, is about more than simple parties. All foster children are individuals with unique personalities, struggles, and needs. The church has the opportunity to come alongside caretakers and plan tailored visits to help meet the physical, educational, emotional, and spiritual needs of the current children residing in the home. No one really understands those needs better than the people who witness the daily ups and downs of the children: the caretakers.
Volunteers have the chance to offer the maximum impact for the good of the children when they come ready to say please teach me how to help. In my experience, the volunteers who helped our kids the most were the ones who took the time to understand our home. They humbly left their assumptions at the door, listened, learned, and relied on our suggestions on how to meet the needs of the kids. Often, once volunteers spent enough time with us to know the kids, they developed great ideas that enabled them to use their skills in a manner that met the real needs of the children.
When someone chooses to humbly listen, they may be surprised to discover the vast array of possibilities to help the hurting. They may learn that the foster kids in the area where they want to serve desperately need the loving patience of the same person helping with homework every week. They may hear about the importance of having trustworthy individuals on the playground to mediate arguments and be present to help teach healthy conflict resolution and interpersonal skills. Foster care networks may be delighted to have people plug in and engage kids with the beauty of God’s word. Some caretakers may voice that their foster kids who feel like the world’s service project and would benefit from being taken to volunteer at the local animal shelter, making cards for the nursing home, or helping them understand they too can contribute to the world. Skilled volunteers are needed to help care for the hair of children of color, teens need to be taught how to cook, and every child should have a chance to learn how to ride a bike. These possibilities and more are ways the church can be a family to foster children in group homes, while also gaining the opportunity to show kids the incredible saving love of Jesus. Churches that are willing to meet existing needs enable believers to be the hands and feet of Christ.
Generally speaking, foster kids are not in need of new parents; they have parents that are deeply loved and missed. The goal of fostering is almost always reunification, however, kids need individuals willing to stand in the gap while they anxiously wait to return home. Gifts and sweets make for memorable smiles. But to the children who are stuck in the institution against their will, waiting for families that may or may not be cooperating with social services, and who know there is nothing they can do to change their reality, those gifts, sweets, and moments of happiness with volunteers are quickly forgotten. If the people of the church desire to have a lasting impact in the lives of foster children they must choose the harder route that requires a willingness to be curious about what’s needed and a readiness to help caretakers meet those specific needs. It’s the route of an eager hand and a humble heart.
Cover image by Samantha Gades.