Aaron Graham doesn’t believe he’s doing anything special with his new program, DC127, which seeks to find families for the city’s foster children. He says he’s just following instructions that were written eons ago.
“DC127 is actually inspired from a Scripture in the Bible — James 1:27 — which says true religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress,” said Graham, who is pastor of the District Church. Graham has done more than memorize Scripture; he’s putting it into practice alongside his wife, Amy, who co-founded the program with him.
One of numerous “127” church-based groups that have emerged nationwide during the past decade to help children who need adoptive families, DC127 aims to help place hundreds of city children who don’t have homes. According to city child-welfare officials, there are nearly 2,800 children in the system, with more than 1,250 in foster care and 290 who are waiting for adoption. The numbers haven’t budged for almost a decade.
“It’s been steady for quite some time,” said Mindy Good, a spokeswoman for the District’s Child and Family Services Agency.
The Grahams — who are adoptive parents and have been foster parents — didn’t need to know the figures to understand this was an issue that needed addressing.
“It’s very much part of our story,” Amy Graham said. “And so it’s just an extension of our hearts.”
Aaron Graham said he believes everyone can do something to help children in the foster-care system.
“Even if you’re not ready to foster or adopt at this point, you can help support a foster child by mentoring them,” he said. “Or you can help support a family by babysitting or by cooking a meal for them.”
Ritu Atwal, program manager for the Child and Family Services’ family resource division, said she hopes that working with DC127 — which she called the first large-scale effort of its kind in the city — will help her agency “get more foster parents in the District that will be able to take our children.” She said keeping the children in the District is a priority.
“They go through a lot of trauma already,” Atwal said. “If you can keep them in the same school district, the same church, the same community so that although they’re leaving their biological homes, they’re not removed from their communities.”
Faith-based groups have worked with city welfare agencies before, but in recent years the efforts have waned, said Kathy Ledesma, national project director for AdoptUSKids. Her group sponsored a summit in 2003 that called for such cooperation at a time when the number of District children waiting for adoption was at an all-time high: 1,124.
She said DC127’s efforts are a sign that “now the pendulum is swinging back the other way.”
DC127’s project coordinator, Chelsea Geyer, said the organization is working quickly, having brought together 10 churches since it began in February.
“Our goal is to see that there are more families waiting for kids than kids waiting for families,” Geyer said.
Ledesma said she believes the program could be a positive movement, so long as foster parents do not place undue expectations on children who have experienced traumatic events.
“We really also need to take in the long-term effects of suffering from abuse or neglect and to be realistic about that,” Ledesma said.
Katie and Kelly Ford are foster parents who embrace the mission set forth by DC127. They’re caring for siblings, ages 9 and 4.
The Fords, who have been married for three years, learned about the faith-based group during a church event and said the help they received since joining was an unexpected surprise.
“I’m so grateful for DC127, because we would have felt kind of like lone rangers, you know,” said Katie Ford, 51. “Our church supports it, and they’re excited for us but to be around people that are, ‘What do you need, Katie? Let me see if I can find some people to help you get a babysitter.’ It’s just nice to have support.”
For the Fords, who met the children at the end of April, there’s always a chance that after a year, they might not be together. But Kelly Ford said he hopes that no matter where his foster children go, they always know it’s “okay to get close to people.”
“We don’t want them to be afraid to connect with us, to anybody in the future, because of maybe hurt feelings in the past,” he said.
Katie Ford knows all about responsibility. As the eldest of five children, she always dreamed of becoming a mother. It’s little things she cherishes: the first time her foster children played in the ocean or their first real Christmas tree.
Asked what she liked best about the tree, Ford’s 9-year-old foster daughter brushed a few stray braids away from her face, sniffed and said sweetly, “Minty.”
Aaron Graham, DC127’s founder, said what the Fords are doing — and what he hopes other families will do — centers on a higher calling.
“We have a responsibility, not only as a church, but as leaders in our city to wrap our arms and our hearts and our minds around these children to make sure that every kid has a brightened future,” Graham said, “and that certainly should be the case in our nation’s capital.”