By Jessica Brodie
SIMPSONVILLE—Forget what curiosity did to the cat. At Hopewell United Methodist Church, curiosity is launching what was once a fledgling foster care ministry into a massive endeavor. And it’s changing hearts and lives one relationship at a time.
It all started when one pastor, the Rev. Don Brown, started wondering what the church could do to help foster families.
Brown, who is in his seventh year as pastor of Hopewell, was aware of the great need for foster services in South Carolina, particularly in Greenville County, which has second largest number of children in foster care in the state. Many of the children who enter foster care come from tragic situations—abuse, neglect and narcotics on the part of their caregivers—but many foster families are not equipped to offer them long-term care in spite of their best intentions. Recruiting the families is one thing, but retaining them is tough. It’s hard work and can be isolating, especially for those families who don’t know how to navigate the system.
For example, Brown said, a parent might get a call for an emergency pickup of a foster child that night, but the child arrives with few clothes or difficult-to-find medication needs, which quickly becomes a hurdle. Or they need help with transportation and childcare, but they don’t know how to quickly find what they need. When burnout sets in, one more foster family could well be lost.
“I started digging around, doing research, and the more I researched the more I realized this is something we need to respond to,” Brown said.
Led by Brown, Hopewell started dialoguing with Epworth Children’s Home, social workers and others who work with foster families to uncover ways they could help support them. Soon they discovered their niche: to come alongside, equip and support foster families so they can be as successful as possible with these kids. Whether its providing clothing, a home-cooked meal or transportation to and from school or doctor appointments, Hopewell members strive to serve the families so their obstacles aren’t insurmountable.
“We found that foster parents often feel ill-equipped and isolated,” Brown said. “They don’t need us to come save them or their children. They just need people to be there in life together with them, helping to meet their needs.”
Beginning late last year, Hopewell created a Foster in Hope Committee with a goal to meet the needs of families whatever that looks like. They started a foster closet, where people can come shop entirely for free for items they need, from diapers to bedding to clothing. They provide transportation and food, and their men’s group is helping to rebuild a ramp on one family’s home. Quarterly events, such as a spring carnival complete with baby animals, help families gather with others in their situation and share problems while dreaming up solutions.
“They realize they’re not isolated and on their own, and they don’t feel like an island by themselves anymore,” Brown said.
Stacy Black is the children’s ministry director at Hopewell, and she is one of a sizable group that has taken on much of the work of Foster in Hope. For her, it all stemmed from her involvement with Epworth Children’s Home, both locally and in Columbia. Soon, she got to know a family in the church who was getting licensed to be a foster family and needed some help with meals. Black helped put together a food train, which was, for her, the launching point.
“We realized there was a huge need for a support system for these families that were helping support the kids in our community,” Black said. “There are so many kids out there who don’t have the loving home we could provide, and I have a massive amount of respect for these families who welcome these kids into their home.
“If there is anything I can do to make it easier on them, I want to help. I want them to know they’re seen, and we understand the difficulties.”
Hopewell member Steve Jackson and his wife were foster parents in the past, and they know how difficult it can be. While they have since adopted the children they fostered and are no longer foster parents, he remembers well how much it helped to have instant support when they got the call that a child was available and in need of a home.
“People sign up and want to be a foster parent, but they have no idea what is involved,” Jackson said. “They go through training and get a phone call, ‘We’ve got a child for you—meet us at McDonalds on such and such road.’ And the kids get handed over with nothing, just a little backpack someone has put together. They don’t have a teddy bear because they were taken out of their home so suddenly.”
He said most foster families don’t wear a sign advertising they need help, and they don’t ask for handouts.
“But they really need help,” Jackson said.
The need is great, Brown said, and things are moving fast. They’ve outgrown their first foster closet. Recently, with a $2,000 gift from Mount Hebron UMC, West Columbia, they purchased a $12,000 12- by 20-foot building delivered Sept. 11 that will enable them to expand what they do.
They are seeking a sizable grant from the Belin Trust now as they seek to create a model that can be duplicated in other UMCs across the state, enabling churches to be vital and relevant in their community as ambassadors for Jesus. Brown said the children being fostered need to know someone is in their corner, and the parents need to know somebody is right there with them, supporting them. And there are things a church can do no matter their budget.
Brown said it’s heartening. “When the people of God who are United Methodist are presented with evidence of a need, they will meet that need,” Brown said. “Imagine, if all the United Methodist churches in South Carolina would do a little something, the impact it would make.”