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Iowa congregation leaves imprint through foster care

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AMES, Iowa (BP) – Shane Kelley and his wife Samantha couldn’t have fully prepared themselves for the world of foster care even with the mandated 10-week training session. They couldn’t comprehend the neglect taking over a child’s world at a time when his emotions can range from anger to relief to confusion to all three at once.

But over the last nine years they learned. The closer you get to something, the more you understand it. That doesn’t mean it becomes easy. But you get a picture of what else is in the background and the silent heroes making good things happen.

Cornerstone Church in Ames, where Shane serves as the local missions leader, has become, alongside other area churches, a lifeline for those walking through foster care. Around 2008, he said, the church’s founding pastor, Troy Nesbitt, and teaching pastor, Jeff Dodge, each took the personal step of involving their families in international adoption and foster care, respectively. Since that time Cornerstone has averaged 20-30 families active in foster care, providing the majority of homes for medium- to long-term stays or short-term respite care in Story County.

“It’s very hard,” Kelley said. “Emotionally, you’re dealing with legal situations. Children often bring in significant behavioral challenges. If they’re in the system, they got there because they experienced abuse or neglect. Those become tentacles affecting every part of their behavior and psychology.”

When the Kelleys signed up they had no other children in the home. So, their first experience as parents came the day they received their foster license. It arrived alongside three children – two of them siblings – ages 11, 8 and 2. Since then they have provided medium- and long-term placements to more than a dozen other children as well as temporary respite care more times than he can guess.

Initial challenges notwithstanding, there is an eventual harvest for those who do not become weary.

“It’s really hard, but also really rewarding,” he said. “These children often have very little structure in their lives and when you provide that and care for them, you see growth. In little ones that comes immediately. There are few opportunities in life to see so many positive changes quickly in so many ways.”

Today, Shane and Samantha have three children as a permanent part of their family. The two younger ones are their biological children while their 15-year-old came to their home through the foster system when she was 9. They are still licensed to foster.

A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year noted 424,000 children in need of foster care throughout the country. Figures like that led Dodge to encourage families at Cornerstone to get involved. He knew, though, that he couldn’t ask without being willing to take the same leap.

In 2008 Dodge and his wife Teresa had four children aging from upper elementary through teens. Shortly after becoming licensed for foster care, he and Nesbitt were leaving a hospital visit when they passed by a room where a baby boy was crying, no one there to care for him.

“You’re a foster parent now. Find out what’s going on,” Nesbitt encouraged him.

Dodge contacted the social worker matched with the hospital, who told him that, yes, the little one needed a home. But so would his two siblings. A couple of days later all three arrived at his front door.

The experience – as well as all of the children who have been in his home since then – completely changed him, he said.

“It’s definitely made us realize what self-sacrificial love is all about,” said Dodge, who is now teaching pastor at Veritas Church in Iowa City. “None of us doing [foster care] brag about how great we are at it. If anything, we’re nursing each other along the way. You count the cost and go forward. That’s what the love of Jesus is all about.”

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the cooperation of churches like Cornerstone has become crucial for those working in foster care.

Emily Easton and her husband served as foster parents as members at Cornerstone. Over the years, the church’s partnership with state agencies led her to take on her current role as recruitment coordinator for the Des Moines area of Four Oaks Family Connections, a nonprofit contracted through the state to assist in foster referrals. The help provided by groups like Cornerstone make a seemingly impossible job a little easier.

“Have a church that knows their community is the most effective way to reach into it,” Easton said. “My organization is able to hold orientations there and speak to others. Those opportunities are really valuable and helpful for us. We also know that churches are great places to find stable caregivers. It’s a great way for them to get involved in their community, certainly.”

Kelley stressed that the purpose of foster care is reunification. It doesn’t always work out that way, but Cornerstone’s involvement has brought awareness to the conditions that lead to a foster situation. So the church has taken extra steps to combat substance abuse and addiction by hosting a Celebration Recovery chapter.

“Our goal is not to judge those parents,” he said. “We want to love them and support them in whatever they’re going through.”

Dodge has gained an appreciation for the social workers and others behind the scenes, the ones making the initial contact and hard decisions in a situation that is almost always highly emotional.

“It’s all an enormous amount of work, but phenomenally rewarding and gratifying,” he said.

In other words, the work doesn’t need to be something scary, but a challenge to be accepted.

“We can get cynical about broken systems like the government and foster care can certainly fall into that, but I’ve come to value and appreciate all of these people,” he said. “They’re out there working, trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and it’s brokenness as far as the eye can see.

“We need to have patience for those making it happen, and for the rest of us trying to make it work.”