When the coronavirus pandemic brought life as we know it to a screeching halt in late March of 2020, a handful of heroes did not have the luxury of sheltering in place. Among those were Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) child welfare workers, who are daily tasked with the responsibilities of making face-to-face visits to investigate child abuse claims and delivering critical intervention to high-risk families whose children are at imminent risk of being removed from the home.
Southern Indiana Needs Help
One gloomy afternoon during the first week of statewide closures, I received a call from a social worker in my home county. “Kimber,” he said, “even with departmental modifications, our workers must still go into homes to make the most urgent of visits. We can’t find masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, or basic cleaning items to keep all of our staff safe. Can anyone help?” Within hours, two churches and dozens of volunteers rallied to assemble supplies.
Two days later, I drove my SUV, filled from top to bottom with over one-hundred hand sewn masks, bags full of anti-bacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, paper towels and toilet tissue, to the regional DCS office. Workers who came to unload my car marveled at the stockpile of items and wanted to know who had brought all the goods? I told them local churches and people who value their investment in our community made it all possible. “You have fans,” I declared, “who know you are all going the extra mile to protect children and strengthen families.”
Touched by the gesture, one caseworker told me that feelings of discouragement had been nagging her all week. “Seeing that people in the community care enough to DO something reminds me of my purpose,” she related. “It’s easy to lose sight of that sometimes.”
The outpouring of support was not because of any one person’s individual effort; rather, it was the result of collaborative action among churches, Christians, state and local agencies, and faith-based organizations like Orphan Care Alliance (OCA). Born in 2005 through the grassroots efforts of five families between two churches in Louisville, Kentucky, OCA began as an endeavor to financially support adopting families through grants and no-interest loans. The ministry soon expanded to equip families through free adoption seminars hosted by local churches. During this time, OCA became increasingly aware of children in need of homes throughout Kentucky and neighboring southern Indiana.
Today, OCA has grown to 4 full-time and 15 part-time staff members, including 4 TBRI® practitioners and a marriage and family therapist, in addition to more than 150 volunteers. Executive Director, Darren Washausen, and his wife, Stacia, have taken the organization from its original conception and developed it into something entirely new: a regional network that empowers local churches throughout Kentucky and southern Indiana to lead the efforts of caring for the foster care and adoptive community in their own zip codes. “The churches were a logical starting point toward expansion of the program,” Darren explained. “It’s very easily expanded throughout the region,” he said. “We’re not charging the state or churches or individuals. We’re simply trying to make a connection. If there’s a need, let’s meet those needs.”
From Kentucky to Southern Indiana
While OCA’s roots were initially established in Louisville, part of its natural outgrowth extended into the southernmost region of Indiana, affectionately nicknamed “The Sunny Side of Louisville.” Though considered part of the greater Louisville metro area, southern Indiana is a sprawling suburban area characterized by a blend of urban and rural settings, with charming, revitalized downtowns, rolling hills, and centuries of history. Often regarded as part of the lower Midwest, the region was settled from the South and isolated from cultural change, resulting in a blend of Northern and Southern culture distinct from both neighboring Kentucky and the remainder of Indiana. Southern Indiana residents feel a deep sense of community pride and independence from neighboring Louisville, preferring to address concerns and community development by identifying local resources, rather than looking to outside agencies or organizations.
In its efforts to effectively serve the southern Indiana region, OCA recognized the importance of avoiding a “cookie-cutter” ministry. Rather than precisely duplicating what was working in Kentucky, OCA invited me, a resident of southern Indiana for more than twenty years, to join their team. As I spent time listening to foster and adoptive families, pastors, church leaders, community advocates, and social workers from across five counties, I heard one consistent theme: “We possess a growing burden to care for vulnerable children and families in crisis who are in our own backyard.”
A Bridge to Connect
Walking alongside each advocate, church, and organization, OCA has focused on being a good student of the smaller communities throughout the “Sunny Side of Louisville,” observing their strengths, challenges, and unique opportunities to engage. We frequently pose this question to churches: “How can we help your efforts to serve hurting kids and their families?” By naturally cultivating relationships with community gatekeepers, rather than asking already busy citizens to add one more “thing” to their to-do list, OCA operates as a bridge to equip, connect, and mobilize Christians with opportunities to care for hurting kids throughout southern Indiana.
One bridge, OCA’s Indiana Kids Care Closet, was initiated years ago by volunteer Terry Boesing, a wife and mother whose five children were growing up and leaving for college. After seeking the Lord’s direction for serving Him in her new season of life, Terry began volunteering regularly at OCA’s Louisville Kids Care Closet. When she learned of OCA’s desire to expand services to southern Indiana, Terry approached the leadership at Graceland Baptist Church to explore the idea of her church housing a care closet for southern Indiana. Graceland graciously offered OCA the space needed to launch the Indiana Kids Care Closet.
Under Terry’s leadership for many years now, the Indiana Kids Care Closet regularly provides material support for kinship placements (families fostering a relative) and children entering the foster care system. The Care Closet receives donations from individuals and churches, and then provides monthly deliveries to the Department of Child Services of 400 to 450 items, including clothing, diapers, baby wipes, and care packs containing clothing and personal care items for children newborn to age 18 years. Terry has engaged many volunteers to support this effort, from youth groups and Sunday School classes, to local schools, homeschool groups, students, individuals, and families. Since its inception in 2014, the Indiana Care Closet has helped over 500 children in five Indiana counties.
The Power of Prayer
When asked to share something exciting that has occurred at the Care Closet, Terry replied, “Just one?”. She went on to explain, “We recently had a clothing request for older children and wanted to meet this need. We began planning for expansion. God soon provided an additional shelving unit and began to bring donations of clothing for teenagers. Why did this happen?” Terry mused. “Prayer,” she emphatically responded. “These children are God’s heart, and their names are written on the palm of His hand. He cares deeply for each one and longs for them to know His love in tangible ways.”
Sometimes children are placed into foster care not because of abuse or neglect but for physical reasons. Ones that could have been easily prevented. An innovative online portal, OCA Gateway, launched as another avenue of connecting churches with the tangible needs of at-risk families. DCS social workers, who spend much valuable time determining a family’s needs and trying to identify resources, communicate with volunteers through the online platform about pressing needs. Whether providing material basics such as beds or cribs to meet home living standards. Or offering services such as fixing a leaking roof. Or mowing a lawn to satisfy neighborhood code. Christians can make a difference in keeping a family together.
OCA Gateway provision is as varied as the families we serve:
- A young sibling group who has been sleeping in makeshift beds excitedly squeals at the delivery of bunk beds from recent empty-nesters, who help the kids assemble their beds, complete with built-in desks and storage units.
- Two churches collaboratively organize multiple teams and gather many supplies to clean and make household repairs for a grandparent unexpectedly assuming care of several grandchildren.
- A teenager who grew up in foster care, always wearing second-hand clothing, is given gift cards from popular apparel stores and begins his senior year of high school sporting his first pair of brand-new jeans and shoes.
Needs Did Not Pause in the Face of a Pandemic
In the months since Covid-19 invaded every crevice of the globe, OCA quickly pivoted from our conventional trainings and monthly support groups to virtual options where families can participate from home. The needs of vulnerable children and families did not pause in the face of a pandemic; neither did OCA’s response. The relational collateral built during the last several years of presence in southern Indiana provided a springboard for increased opportunities to support, resource, and encourage families who care for children in foster care and those who adopt. In an effort to address the ongoing and urgent need for well-trained and equipped foster families, OCA recently partnered with DCS in southern Indiana to offer online traumatraining to any foster or adoptive parent.
While many child welfare social workers and agencies are accustomed to quick “one-time” projects spearheaded by faith-based organizations—a Christmas party for foster families or a church donation of children’s clothing—OCA is committed to the long-haul investment of churches and Christians in their local community. Through a relational, restorative focus on people rather than projects, Christians in southern Indiana are changing the outcomes of hurting individuals in our own neighborhoods. Collaboration is a brilliant illustration of what is possible when people, churches, and organizations come together: God accomplishes so much more than we ever could on our own.