GULFPORT, Miss. (BP) — What started as a pastor’s burden for orphans has impacted the lives of hundreds of at-risk children and their families as well as Mississippi’s child welfare system.
In 2015, as Tony Karnes of Michael Memorial Baptist Church in Gulfport was preparing a sermon, he took to heart James 1:27, which implores Christians to “visit orphans … in their affliction.”
Karnes, senior pastor of Michael Memorial, subsequently visited the Harrison County children’s shelter, which “was filled with children,” some who had been taken from their homes due to neglect or abuse. Karnes learned that the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (CPS) removes children at a 4-to-1 rate on the Gulf Coast, compared to the rest of the state.
Some of the children in the shelter, which was intended for short-term stays, had been there for months because no foster homes were available, Karnes said. He returned to the church with a vision for recruiting 100 Harrison County families to be licensed as foster homes and to “rescue” some of those children from the shelter.
About 50 church families volunteered, but the state’s time-consuming foster home licensing process could span a year or longer. So Karnes and church members developed and proposed to CPS a streamlined three-month foster care licensing process that includes online and one Saturday of training.
Rescue 100 became the program’s named based on Karnes’s original goal.
Rescue 100 is promoted primarily in churches. More than 100 foster families in Hancock County and a total of more than 300 families statewide have been licensed since the program’s inception in April 2016, said Sabrea Smith, CPS director of Rescue 100.
It has helped create a “foster care movement throughout the church community,” Smith said. “We are seeing our churches wrap around not only our foster families and foster children, but even our biological families to help provide services for them to stay together.
“It’s just amazing to watch and be a part of,” Smith said. “We have churches all across the state now that are providing services like support groups, care closets, counseling, meals for our foster families. You just name it and they’re seeing a need and they’re jumping in there and getting it done, which takes a lot of the stress and pressure off of the foster care system.”
Karnes said he’s seen the impact of the foster care movement right where it all began.
“The shelter that was originally filled with children — that got my attention and got me into this — is now empty. Children don’t stay there more than a couple of days. … All those kids are living in wonderful homes now. But similar things have happened all over the state.”
Some children who might have otherwise been in the shelter have been fostered in homes of Michael Memorial church members licensed through Rescue 100.
Members Jennifer and Joey Bardwell, who have four biological children ranging from 6 to college age, have fostered four children. The second, she said, “was a surprise.”
She left a friend’s pool party and was driving to an emergency room because “my nephew had bumped his head on the slide and we wanted to make sure he was OK.”
On the way to the ER, a social worker called and said she had “a short-term foster child, an infant we need a home for. Mom is in the emergency room, and lo and behold,” Bardwell said, “it was the same emergency room that we were headed to.
“So, we leave the party with one child in tow and we come back with two,” Bardwell said. “That was a fun surprise.
“When you answer yes to foster parenting,” she said, “it is literally like having your own child.” And, she said, “Everybody is impacted,” especially the foster parents’ own children.
“I think sometimes we don’t realize the extent of what we’re asking of the children in our home,” Bardwell said. “For us and for other families I’ve seen, kids in the home are impacted almost more than even the parents. They’re having to learn, grow, stretch in ways that they never expected to have to grow and stretch.”
Nevertheless, her family has a mindset “that this is what we need to do. We’re called. It’s just ‘yes,’ and we do it.”
Another church member, Anna Griffin, echoed Bardwell’s comments, noting that foster parents must grow and stretch.
Being a foster parent “teaches you, it stretches you and you learn to transition and accept changes, and it will move you out of your comfort zone.”
The second foster placement for Griffin and her husband Scott was a 2-and-a-half-year-old girl whose stay was long-term. But the Griffins made it permanent, adopting Skylar-Rose, who is now 4. They also have three biological sons, ages 8, 10 and 19.
You don’t know how the story’s going to unfold,” Griffin said. “You just walk in with faith, saying, ‘I don’t know how all this is going to turn out. All I’m going to do is let them see the Gospel lived out in my home and let them feel loved and safe in a way that they’ve never known.’
“And whether they stay in your home forever or they go home, they’ve known the love of God, and that’s better than not knowing it, ever.”