The call from social services came at midnight in October 2017 — Ruben Elizondo and his wife Hillarie Elizondo’s first foster child, a 4-month-old boy, would arrive in two hours with only the clothes on his back and a baby carrier.
The Austin couple’s experience isn’t uncommon. An emergency foster placement happens quickly, often with a few hours’ notice. Foster parents usually don’t have age-appropriate foods, clothing or personal items available.
The Elizondos reached out for help to Foster Village Austin, an organization supporting foster families. Volunteers from the nonprofit dropped off needed items that day.
In 2014, Chrystal Smith, 39, fostered an 8-month-old girl in Austin with her husband Nick, 41. They experienced what it’s like to be overwhelmed as parents of a foster child. Smith also noticed the high turnover rate of foster parents, a fact confirmed in a National Council for Adoption study, which says, “More than half of foster families quit fostering within the first year.”
“We recognized just how hard it was and how there was a sense of isolation as foster parents,” Smith said. “We started connecting with foster parents who were in the same boat. I kept hearing the same thing from everybody: ‘We need a village.’ ‘We wish we had a village.’ ”
She became determined to make things easier for other foster parents, and, in 2016, she founded Foster Village Austin. Her background in child development and teaching court-mandated parenting classes provided her with the skills to get started.
The nonprofit’s website says that its mission is to “come alongside children and families in the child welfare system and show them that they are not alone.” Foster Village’s programs are based on three pillars: advocate, connect and equip. The attention is on the birth parents, family caregivers and licensed foster parents.
Using the “village” mentality, Foster Village calls on the community to assist with donations, programming and child care. Once a family knows a foster child is arriving, they can request a welcome pack filled with age- and size-appropriate clothing, socks, underwear or diapers, toys and toiletries. Volunteers make and deliver the welcome packs within the initial days after a foster child’s arrival.
“We recognized that most people in the community had a desire to help, but just didn't know how,” Smith said. “We made it our personal mission to connect the helpers to those in need of support.”
The Foster Village model includes providing a resource center — a place for families to pick up free items such as clothing, furniture and personal necessities, and it’s also a space in which to gather. Before the coronavirus pandemic began, Austin’s two resource centers hosted support groups, parents’ nights-out, and family gatherings. One center offers overnight accommodations for foster children awaiting a placement.
“It’s a homelike transition place for the kids and families,” Smith said. “It’s essentially a welcoming safe haven for the kids and families to have a non-institutional-feeling experience in foster care — a more dignified and healing experience.”
Villages across the country
Foster parents and social workers in other cities who sought similar relief turned to Foster Village Austin. With Smith’s guidance, affiliate programs were started in Baton Rouge; Charlotte; Houston; Memphis; North Texas; and Waco. A Foster Village affiliate operates under a separate 501c3 and shares the Foster Village Inc.’s mission and model. Affiliates pay licensing fees and contribute toward materials and software.
Sasha Hosick, 30, was working as a foster care social worker for a private organization in Montgomery, Ala., when she decided to shift careers and focus on supporting foster families. Last year she quit her job and returned to her hometown to set up Foster Village Memphis.
“I’ve been laying the foundation,” Hosick said. “I’ve been working on a relationship with DCS [Department of Children’s Services], our state system. I’ve connected with the juvenile court’s head judge. Essentially [I’m] getting in with the people who will help us have families.”
Foster Village Memphis received its 501c3 status at the end of September. Hosick secured storage space in a church for donations and has assembled teams to make and deliver freezer meals and welcome packs, and to coordinate parents’ nights-out (after covid-19 restrictions are lifted) and child care.
In Memphis, Hosick wants to raise awareness about what it means to be a foster parent. Misconceptions and negative stereotypes about fostering children often come from movies and television, Hosick said.
Many people tell Hosick they couldn’t take on the responsibility of fostering a child. She responds: “Do you own a lawn mower? Can you vacuum? Do you cook? Can you watch kids? There is literally something that every single person can do to help a foster family. I know supports should not be a luxury when it comes to foster care.”
Support within the Memphis community has been strong: An institutional space where children stay until they’re placed with a foster family was transformed from a sterile environment to a more welcoming area in January. Hosick put out a request to stock two DCS waiting areas with coloring books, TVs, DVD players, personal care items and furniture. The group’s Amazon wish list, with items such as blankets, phone chargers and puzzles, was empty within hours. The DCS staff members responsible for the rooms were shocked by the level of support.
“This is the right thing,” Hosick said. “All of this stress and work is worth it. I made the right decision to take this crazy leap — quit my job, move and start a nonprofit.”
Janay Jones-Clark, 41, in Baton Rouge, searched for help after she and her husband agreed to foster their 2-year-old grandniece under kinship care. Despite an easy foster situation because the process is simpler with kinship care, they lacked a community of support. “If you were doing this and dealing with the system in a difficult case with a child with a lot of trauma,” Jones-Clark said, “I just thought how isolating that would be. It was isolating enough for us.”
Last year Jones-Clark and her friend, Crystal Thibodeaux, founded Foster Village Baton Rouge after discovering Foster Village Austin through an Internet search. Jones-Clark trained with Smith, learning about procedures, meeting families and seeing Austin’s resource centers. Although lockdowns related to covid-19 have slowed some of their progress, they’ve fundraised, collected donations and built the organization’s structure.
“Each affiliate city obviously has different needs,” Jones-Clark said. “We are able to tailor the program to the needs of our city. The real resource is not having to reinvent everything.”
Ruben Elizondo remembers the day in 2017 when Smith dropped off supplies for their first foster child, who stayed with them 14 months. Now with their second foster placement, the Elizondos stay active in Foster Village Austin through family gatherings and support meetings.
“The biggest blessing is the safe spaces for the community they created, things like the moms’ and dads’ monthly meetings,” he said. “[It’s the] relationships with people who truly get it and understand what we’re going through.”