By JOHN FORTMEYER
PORTLAND — Hope doesn’t come pre-packaged in a box. But one local church member’s idea for a box full of activities for children entering foster care has sparked a movement by dozens of local churches to give a meaningful, hopeful boost to the foster care system.
“God has used this tiny ember of this very humble idea and turned it into a raging wildfire,” said Jillana Goble, a member of Imago Dei Community Church in Portland whose concern for foster children has spread now to 55 churches in five counties.
It began when Goble, a foster and adoptive parent, discovered that children sometimes wait for hours at a time in child welfare offices. “I learned that every single time a child or sibling set entered foster care, the social workers were scrambling with no protocol for what they do during this vulnerable time.”
Goble came up with the idea for “welcome boxes” full of age-appropriate things for children to do while waiting in the office. The first 25 were delivered last May.
“I started this through a missional grant from my church, Imago Dei, where a larger grant was given to fund Welcome Home, a ministry that seeks to equip and support foster and adoptive families within our church congregation,” Goble explained.
Now, not even a year later, the idea has spread and 4,000 boxes have been made in the local community. All child welfare offices in the five-county Portland metro area are now stocked with boxes made by individuals, businesses and churches.
Not only has this blessed both the children and the social workers, said Goblem but it also has helped raise community awareness overall about the sheer number of kids awaiting foster home placement in the metro area. And that has led the local faith community to examine how else it can come alongside the child welfare system.
That has led to another project — churches doing makeovers to the child welfare offices themselves to make them more inviting.
At one such office in southeast Portland, the staff break room had been cold, dreary and uninviting, said Goble. She said none of the 150 staff who worked in that office ever hung out in that room, choosing instead to stay in their cubicles for lunch.
“Once that room was re-done, there is a renewed sense of community,” she said. “On the Tuesday when the staff came back after a long weekend where churches worked Friday, Saturday and Monday to complete it, many staff had tears, in a state of shock that the church would not only serve their clients by providing visitation rooms with nice new leather furniture, rugs and new toys, but a room for them as well.”
This first makeover has led to many others. “We desire to communicate worth and value through the space,” said Goble. “Parents in Multnomah County usually receive one hour to visit with their children each week on average. We want to be sure that sacred time is in a place that is welcoming and not shabby.”
This developing relationship between churches and child welfare offices is leading to other positive steps by the faith community, according to Goble:
•Every child welfare office has a liaison from the faith community who is a go-between for that local office and the surrounding churches. Some offices have up to nine churches partnering.
•Many church people, who had mistaken impressions about foster care, are inquiring now about welcoming children into their homes. Even if that isn’t the right fit, there are other ways to help, including mentoring a child, volunteering or being supportive of foster families within church congregations, said Goble.
•Because each local county has been experiencing a critical shortage of healthy foster homes, the Portland Leadership Foundation, which has been asked by metro-area churches to head up this regional coordination between the churches and child welfare offices, asked each local county to specify the desired number of foster families. The collective answer is 884 new non-relative or respite families to engage in the system.
“Churches are beginning to shine a spotlight on foster care within their congregations, with the emphasis on giving families a solid theological framework as well as a network for emotional and tangible support on the journey of welcoming traumatized children into their homes,” said Goble.
“There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution to systemic social problems, and some of the greatest challenges in the child welfare system cannot be solved by simply scaling or replicating one organization or program,” said Ben Sand, chief executive officer of Portland Leadership Foundation. “We see ‘Collective Impact,’ which is the commitment of a group of different sectors — public, private, faith communities, individuals — coming together for the common agenda as the solution for impacting a complex social problem like foster care.”
For more information, phone Portland Leadership Foundation at 503-281-1801.