Growing faith in a pandemic

Today’s blog post comes from Jessie Berry, clinical supervisor at Encourage. She shares a powerful story of fostering through faith. See how God is at work in a young man’s life as well as his bio family because of a loving, praying foster family.

As I have stepped into my new role as clinical supervisor, I have had the opportunity to meet most of our Encourage foster parents. Each foster family has their own unique strengths which they use daily to care for children in their healing journey.

I have gotten to work closely with the Kirkbrides, one of our newer foster families. John and Cheryl had a young man placed with them not long after they were licensed. Bobby* arrived the week before everything shut down due to COVID-19.

Once placed with the Kirkbrides, Bobby adjusted well despite the pandemic and all the changes associated with it. The couple supported him during the transition and immediately began to prioritize both his faith journey and his relationship with his biological family.

Bobby’s faith journey began before being placed in the Kirkbride’s home. While living in his hometown, a bus would come around the neighborhood each week and take the children to a program at the local church. Bobby’s foster mother, Cheryl, reports that the seed of his faith and understanding of who Jesus is definitely started there.

Due to the Kirkbride’s church not holding in-person services during the crisis, Bobby began watching church with them online on Sunday mornings. He would ask them many questions and was very interested in learning how the church service worked. Bobby also enjoyed memorizing Bible verses, and Cheryl would hear him proudly reciting them to his mom during their phone calls. Bobby’s bio mother was very receptive to this and encouraged him to do so. During the past few months, he has read through the Old Testament with his foster parents and is looking forward to reading the New Testament next.

Bobby informed John and Cheryl that he was very interested in being baptized. He recently met with the children’s minister and is preparing for his baptism. His foster parents have assisted him in completing a baptism study. Bobby shared a desire to have his biological parents attend the baptism, and the Kirkbrides have fully supported this. They plan on scheduling his baptism once his parents are allowed to attend/have out-of-agency visits.

The Kirkbrides expressed that Bobby has also developed an interest in listening to Christian music, his favorite band being MercyMe. Cheryl has seen Bobby dancing to “Happy Dance,” “Shake,” and “Grace Got You.” One day he listened to “Grace Got You” over 25 times while playing with Legos. She’s also heard him belting “Waymaker” while in the shower, and he loves wearing the “Waymaker” shirt his foster parents ordered for him. The Kirkbrides feel music has helped Bobby heal and connect deeper to his faith.

John and Cheryl pray for and with Bobby each night, requesting that God give him faith like David. Encourage is very thankful for all the Kirkbrides do, selflessly taking on a foster placement during the COVID-19 pandemic and working hard to ensure that Bobby sees his worth in Christ.

*Name changed for privacy.

The biggest joy

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’re sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Today’s story of blessing comes from our Clinical Supervisor Jessie Berry, MSSA, LISW-S. Jessie provides therapeutic support as a staff member and she is also a foster mom with her local foster care agency.

The biggest joy my husband and I have experienced as foster parents has been getting the opportunity to show the kiddos their worth in Christ. When we got placement of our two little boys, they had never been introduced to the Lord. This seems to often be the case with our foster youth. One of the greatest responsibilities we have faced as foster parents has been raising them in a Godly household, teaching them the power of prayer, and fostering their relationship with the Lord.

While grief and anxiety are emotions foster parents frequently experience as reunification nears, the knowledge that Jesus is now in their hearts, whether they are at your house or in their biological home, gives a much needed sense of peace and comfort. What could be more powerful and reassuring than that?

Encourage families are fostering through faith. They are responding to a ministry that God has called them to. Their heart is for each child to experience their worth in Christ. For more information about fostering with Encourage, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at huebnerh@ccho.org or 330.462.1118.

View more stories of blessings from Encourage staff and foster families.

Change of plans

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’re sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Today’s story of blessing comes from our Home Study Supervisor Emily Engman, LSW. Emily sees the faithfulness and compassion of our foster families. Even in the midst of uncertainty, they have willingly changed their plans and followed Jesus.

During the course of COVID-19, we have seen many Encourage foster families step it up to take care of children in need in our communities! One of our families opened their home to care for a sibling of one of their current foster children. Another one of our families opened their home to take care of 7-year-old and 9-year-old sisters who were no longer able to stay with their current foster family.

Neither of these families had planned on having additional children in their home a few months ago, but, when the need was there, they showed up. We are so grateful for our foster families and all the work they do to help foster children.

“The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” -Proverbs 16:9, ESV

We have a heart for keeping siblings together and we are so grateful for our foster families who help make this possible. Learn more about our ministry focus and connect with Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist, at huebnerh@ccho.org or 330.462.1118 with any questions.

Major milestone

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’re sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Today’s story of blessing comes from our Clinical Supervisor Jessie Berry, MSSA, LISW-S. Through her therapeutic role, she connects with children as they vulnerably and bravely share their stories.

One of the greatest blessings I have experienced so far during my time with Encourage is the strength of our foster youth. Although it is very difficult for many, a big part of the healing journey for our foster youth is being able to be open and honest about their past. Trauma work may occur early on in therapeutic process, however, most kiddos take an extended period of time to feel safe enough and ready to share their deepest, darkest secrets.

This week I had a foster youth finally feel safe enough to share much of her past trauma, disclosing things that she has been holding in for many years. She was very proud of herself as she hit this major milestone in her treatment. Just as parents have to heal and work their case plan, our youth have to heal and accomplish their goals so when reunification occurs, the family unit as a whole is as healthy and resilient as it can be.

“Shame gets unspeakable power only if it’s unspeakable. Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.” -Ann Voskamp

If you have a story or blessing to share, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at huebnerh@ccho.org or 330.462.1118.

Noticing each moment

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’ll be sharing “Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Enjoy these reflections from foster parents Alisha and Matt Everhart. Each moment matters for connecting and building comfort as they care for children in need of safety and love. Each moment matters as they prepare their own hearts to serve well.

When the call comes.
That moment the phone rings and you know it’s your agency worker. You weren’t expecting the call and when you answer they tell you they have a possible placement and ask if we are interested. The info is usually very limited, and yet, this call has so much meaning and emotions with it. Excitement for what could be. Sorrow that a child is entering the system. Nervous about what will happen if we say yes. Countless questions. How will they act? Will we bond with them or will they hate us? What will they look like? What is their true story? Wondering what they have been through…

Then the children come.
Usually just with the clothes they are wearing. Sometimes not matching, often not fitting properly or fitting the current weather. Some with a coat and others not. Your first few hours are usually spent getting them cleaned up if needed, fed, change of clothes. Trying to help them feel comfortable in a stranger’s home. Then the first few days generally include sleepless nights as we all adjust, a shopping trip to get the necessities, clothes and shoes. What a moment this can be. Some have never had new clothes or had a say in choosing what they wear. It also means shopping for school supplies again and again as we’ve had to buy supplies for all of our foster children.

Then there are birthdays and holidays.
Our first placement came to us on a Friday night and the youngest of the siblings had a birthday just two days later. Talk about rushing to celebrate her so she would know her birthday is a special day indeed. And then her older sister had a birthday within a month. Talk about lots of changes.

Eventually we all get into a routine and things settle down some but adjustments continue.

Meeting a kiddo and the kiddo meeting us causes me to have butterflies. We’re sure they do as well. Wouldn’t you if one minute you are with your family and the next you are told you’re going to stay with another family who is coming to get them right now? You try to make the house perfect and their room inviting. You try not to ask too many questions, and yet you wonder inside. Should we give them a hug or shake a hand? How did they sleep? Did they have a bed? Are they afraid of the dark?

So many unknowns and navigating in those first weeks together.

If you have a story to share, or if you are interested in learning more about becoming a foster parent, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at huebnerh@ccho.org or 330.462.1118.

Give all of you

Throughout National Foster Care Month, we’ll be sharing a new series–”Blessings Found in Fostering.” We’ve asked Encourage families and staff to tell us what they’re learning and the God moments they’ve seen along the way. Enjoy these words of wisdom from foster mom Amber Buchwalter. She and her husband Phil became foster parents for the first time in 2019. We love having them in the Encourage family.

Fostering is caring for children as if they were your own and not worrying about the possibility of them ever leaving your home, yet still being prepared in the heart for that day to happen, should it. There is no cookie-cutter recipe. It’s not for those who want to do the minimal and still graduate. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

I’ve learned that basic needs and consistency take much effort. I am constantly troubleshooting how to get a toddler to sleep at night and trying to figure out how a five-year-old does or doesn’t think 🙂

I’ve learned so much about patience. Everything slows way down with kids—especially getting them ready to go outside with shoes, coats, gloves, etc. What a process! However, each day is new, and God has supplied me with the strength to get up and do it all again. God also allows me to give them grace when they have off days and aren’t the kind boys that we know they are. There are ups and downs, there are really fabulous days, and there are days when I crumble. I’ve learned to walk away and do breathing exercises that I acquired from my preschooler’s Head Start program. Sometimes I just pray and collect myself.

I’ve learned that we all are human. Little kids develop quickly up to age two, and then they start gaining independence and learning how to really test / push / try to do stuff on their own without permission. I’ve learned not to be a drill sergeant and yet not be too relaxed because then they don’t take me seriously.

I’ve learned from fostering that husbands and wives go through very separate issues with feelings of guilt, blaming each other, feeling stuck, not feeling like we are in the same boat, not knowing how to talk to each other about parenting choices, or even undercutting each other’s authority. Asking questions and talking to my husband about these concerns and how we can accomplish parenting together has really helped us unify our thoughts and direct our energies in the same direction. Whew!

I’ve learned that I love-love-love being a mom, and these kids need-need-need stability, consistency, love, physical touch, and yes, the basics. But if you only give basic needs, you hold back. You have to give all of you because they notice. The sleepless nights, the whining, the attitudes, the hardest days will always be worth it when I put my all into it. Seeing the boys’ progress and development change because we provided a stable atmosphere is mind blowing. I’ve seen connection points throughout this last year. I’ve gotten hugs I didn’t think would happen. I’ve even gotten a kiss on the forehead. I’ve received love letters from my older boy that are still taped to my door where he put them. I have seen so many improvements and developmental milestones in one year, and it’s so exciting! Especially the tenderhearted moment when I led my five-year-old in a prayer to accept Jesus in his life.

I’ve learned that fostering has drawn me closer to God. In my weakest moments, I’m asking / calling / begging for help. I have treasured the networking of experienced foster parents and staff from Encourage. They have been a lifeline when I need advice or have questions. Meeting new foster parents with kids has opened up my world of friends and taught me valuable lessons I will never forget.

I’ve learned that messy toy-filled rooms don’t bother me anymore. Picking up toys with the boys is a way of connecting with them. I look around our home and see how the boys have rerouted our routine and we are part of theirs. They have food, toys, clothes and little friends that we will get to see again after this virus ends. I see healthy children who have learned to sleep in. They know they are safe, loved, liked and accepted. They know that their feelings matter and that they can run to us whenever they want.

If you have a story or blessing to share, please contact Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist at huebnerh@ccho.org or 330.462.1118.

Grace for birth parents

How we think about and care for birth families is an important piece of our work in foster care. There are some who would say that the relationship with birth parents is one of the hardest parts of being a foster parent. We struggle with the pain they have caused. We hurt watching the foster kiddos in our homes navigate these sensitive relationships. We have a hard time imagining being in the biological parent’s shoes. We often don’t know the words to say when interacting.

Sometimes it’s awkward and we don’t feel loving towards them.

And that’s okay to admit.

In foster care, we aim for reunification when possible. As Christians in foster care, we seek to live out gospel-centered lives. We believe in healing for our foster kiddos from the trauma they’ve experienced. We hope for healing from addiction and other paths that have captured birth parents.

We pray for our foster youth. We can equally pray for their biological families. And we can listen to their stories and ask God to make us teachable and open towards opportunities to show His grace.

Here’s one birth mom’s story of redemption from addiction, her gratitude for the foster family who took care of her son while in recovery, and her beautiful faith in God who sustains her.

For over six years, Ashley was caught in the cycle of addiction. Her son was removed from her care and placed into foster care because of it. After two years in the system, Ashley and her son were reunified, and she is now a passionate advocate for foster care.

Listen to the podcast from The Forgotten Initiative.

Sensory needs

At Encourage, we invest fully in our families and children, and we are committed to supporting our foster parents throughout their entire journey. One way that we come alongside our families is helping them identify tools and resources to best address the needs of the kids in their care. We currently have several kiddos with sensory challenges, and the following support items (all under $80 each) could be very helpful in their home. Would you be willing to help meet one or more needs?

Weighted blankets (we could use at least three in twin size)
Weighted blankets have been known to help individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder, ADHD, autism and other health conditions feel calmer and sleep better. They are usually made with 10 percent of the individual’s body weight to provide firm but gentle deep pressure. Weighted blanket therapy is similar to that of swaddling an infant. Just as the firm, snug wrapping helps an infant relax and drift off to sleep, the weighted blanket helps a child with a similar effect.

Please purchase this weighted blanket (or similar).

Sensory body socks (we could use three small and medium sizes)
Similar to a weighted blanket, a child will benefit from feeling calm and relaxed by the deep pressure input of the body sock. It’s a great quiet suit when a child needs help managing emotions and sleep. At other times a body sock is useful for developing motor skills.

Please purchase this sensory body sock (or similar).

Therapy swing (we could use at least three)
The swinging motion helps teach a child’s brain and body to work together. This sensory integration improves coordination, balance, body awareness and concentration. The swaddling feature gives children a sense of protection and blocks out unnecessary sensory input. Therapy swings benefit children who have Sensory Processing Disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, or those on the autism spectrum.

Please purchase this therapy swing (or similar).

Perhaps you are not in a season where fostering fits but you are in a season where you could be a blessing to a foster family. If you would like to encourage one of our families by purchasing an item or two from this list, we would be so grateful. Please have your item(s) shipped directly to the Encourage office at 637 College Avenue, Wooster, Ohio 44691. Be sure to let Emily Engman, LSW, (engmane@ccho.org) know of your plans in advance to prevent duplications of items purchased.

We will update this blog post when the needs are met. Thank you for giving generously!

Fostering teens

One of Encourage’s greatest needs is foster homes for teenage foster children.

Being a teenager is already hard enough.

Imagine not having support and stability at home while you navigate hormones, school, relationships and a host of other moments and decisions as graduation gets ever closer.

Imagine not having someone show you some of the things you took for granted like making mac and cheese, filling out a job application or learning how to drive.

Imagine not having someone see you and love you for you who are and help you reach your potential and chase your dreams.

Most children in foster care have not experienced what a real home is supposed to be like. The average foster child is not used to cooking with mom, eating at the dinner table, having a scheduled time to do homework, or even the basics like seeing parents. So you can give them a glimpse of what a home is supposed to be like. You can provide dinners at a table. You can offer up some time cooking in the kitchen. Just normal!

(Read the full article.)

Providing a home and supportive relationship to a teen will come with challenges, but here are 10 reasons to foster a teenager in foster care.

No one should have to go through major life moments without someone cheering at their side. You could be that someone. Your home could be the first home that helps a teen experience his or her worth in Christ.

If you would like to talk with one of our staff members about what it would like to welcome a teen into your home, please contact us today. Heather Huebner, Recruitment and Engagement Specialist, would be honored to process this decision with you. Reach out today at huebnerh@ccho.org or 330.462.1118.

Life Is Short – Buy The Orange Pants

This blog post was originally published in January 2016. The truth of it remains the same so we are sharing it again to bring you encouragement for the journey.

My husband and I have had the privilege of providing foster care to fifteen children since 2010. We have three little boys right now who are six, five, and three. Last week one of our little boys told me he really wished he had some orange pants. Now, when he first came to our home, you could barely understand a word he said. So to hear him have such a specific want brings me a lot of joy. This kid absolutely loves to wear bow ties and dress up clothes to school. Almost every week he has a “dress up” day where he wears a shirt with a collar and a bow tie. His older brother says kids tease him sometimes for wearing ties to school, but he says he doesn’t care–he just likes his bow ties.

Last Thursday I had a free hour between appointments and I stopped at the outlet mall on a quest for orange pants. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought I’d check it out. Four stores later and I found a single pair of orange dress pants. They were squished in a clearance rack with last years’ leftovers. Between assorted tank tops and t-shirts from other seasons, there was one pair of orange pants. Exactly what I needed. The store manager told me that those pants have been waiting on the clearance rack for two years. Literally longer than this sweet little guy has lived in my home- these pants have been waiting. The perfect orange dress pants in a size six.

I have the honor of working with our new foster parents and I field a lot of phone calls from new inquiries. People who are maybe on the edge of deciding whether or not they should get involved with the foster care system. Everyone has heard horror stories and there are a million excuses as to why they shouldn’t get involved in a system that is viewed by so many as so broken.

Maybe we should wait until we are older.

Maybe we should wait until we have more money.

Maybe we should wait until we aren’t so busy.

Maybe I shouldn’t do this because I’m single.

Maybe we shouldn’t do this because it will be too hard to love them and let them go.

I often see a lot of fear and unrealistic expectations of what foster care is and will be like. People are afraid of the unknowns and the worst case scenarios so they limit their options to what they see are the “safest” choices. They are counseled by friends not to take the “hard” kids. Often the choice is little babies with no problems. Kids who haven’t been exposed to drugs, domestic violence, kids who aren’t in counseling, or attached to siblings, or need more time to recover… But ‘little babies with no problems’ don’t need foster care. It is the children who have seen the worst in life who need us. Children whose needs haven’t been met. Children who haven’t had safety and security in a warm and loving home. Children who can describe what needles look like and how to shoot up heroin. Children who have experienced violence and come to our homes with wounds on their bodies and their souls. That scares people.

As a result, there are so many children who sit waiting. Waiting for someone to be brave enough to care for them. To take a risk. To take the chance… outside their comfort zone. Maybe like wearing a pair of orange dress pants.

We had an adoption matching meeting recently for our three boys. An adoption matching meeting occurs when children who have been in foster care become available for adoption and the state is working towards locating an adoptive placement for the children. Unfortunately, for our children, there are no family members able to care for them at this time. During that meeting we talked about the supports my husband and I have as parents. I explained we have some wonderful friends who really get it- my social work friends who understand why we chose foster care and why we chose this life. They love us and will support us and our children.

My husband and I haven’t chosen an easy road, but as for our children? They had absolutely no choice in the matter. None of these children do. They wind up in the system through no fault of their own and rely on social workers, foster parents, and counselors to help them pick up the pieces of their lives. They didn’t choose this life.

I’m so glad that I didn’t let our fears or excuses get in the way of God’s direction for our lives.

There’s a wonderful quote from Joseph Campbell that I have hanging in my office. It reads: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I find this to be very true in the world of foster care. I often tell new foster parents that they will experience frustration and heartache, and the feeling of ‘not knowing’ what will happen with the children in your home will really wear you down! But when you see the recovery that a child can make when they feel safe and secure, when you see the light begin to shine in their eyes, and the fear begin to dissipate, it is all worth it. They didn’t choose this, but we can choose to be with them through it. The world tells us our lives should be easy. But I absolutely believe that our faith requires more of us.

I’m so glad we chose this life.

I’m so glad that when the social worker called that we said yes.

I’m so glad that we gave a home to a little boy, who can now give a home to these crazy orange pants.

I’m so glad that I am able to empower other prospective foster parents to do this too. You can do this, you are capable and you are stronger than you think!

Life is short. You should definitely buy the orange pants.