When Jenni Olowo and her husband, Ade (pronounced ahh-day), set out to ask churches, organizations, and businesses to work together to address the foster care crisis in Bryan-College Station, Texas, they knew three things: First, they believed that providing more than enough for children and families in foster care in their county was possible. Second, having been foster parents, they knew that those working in the system couldn’t do it all by themselves. Third, they knew they lived in a community that would want to care for children and families if they only knew what to do and how to do it.
Jenni and Ade began reaching out to various community leaders and churches and were blown away by the response. In a short amount of time, this Texas posse of concerned community members was off to the races and began learning as much as they could about the needs of children and families in their community. They call this collaboration BCS Together referring to the twin cities of Bryan-College Station where they all live. The story of this collaboration and what it has already produced illustrates an incredible three-step process every advocate can use in their own community:
- Help the community see
- Help the community dream
- Help the community act
Step 1: Help the Community See
One of the community members that Jenni reached out to was Lauren Falcone. Lauren has always been passionate about caring for children, but this new effort introduced her to a new need in their county. Lauren recalls, “We were finding out that children were sleeping at the CPS office . . . and that was really eye-opening and devastating for me personally, and our whole team. We were finding out that these children were sleeping in the office, which is exactly what that is. It’s an office. It is not a home and is not welcoming.”
She was especially impacted when she learned what happened when a child needed a shower: “The office had no shower facilities, so they were bringing the kids to our staff’s home to shower. And that was heartbreaking to think about a child going into a home, seeing a family, possibly sitting around having dinner together, smiling. And here’s this child, taking a shower and then leaving the comforts of that home to go back and sleep on the cot in an office. It was just really devastating.”
Lauren had now seen things she couldn’t unsee, and it was literally keeping her up at night.
Step 2: Help the Community Dream
Now that they had seen the problem, they started to dream about solutions. Jenni recalls, “Our very first idea (because we knew very little about the actual CPS office), was maybe it would bless them the most if we found some contractors . . . that could actually add some kind of extension onto the office . . . Maybe we could give them a shower, maybe even a small bedroom– but very quickly we found out that they actually rent that building.”
Undeterred, they kept dreaming. Jenni described their next thoughts, “Well maybe the next natural thing is, could BCS together own a house one day? And we all kind of laughed because I think deep down inside, we all wondered if maybe it was 5 to 10 years down the road. I mean, at this point we had not even existed for one year yet.”
Then one day, another one of the BCS Together team members called Jenni to tell her that Lauren and her husband had an idea. They had a rental house that they decided to allow BCS Together to use as an emergency shelter for CPS. The CPS office was thrilled about the possibility but i’s had to be dotted and t’s had to be crossed. A memorandum of understanding between BCS Together and CPS was submitted to the higher-ups and everyone involved was told it would take a minimum of four to six months to get something like that approved.
Three weeks later, CPS sent an email saying they’d never approved an MOU this quickly but they had the green light.
Step 3: Help the Community Act
The problem had been seen, the dream had been dreamed. Now, it was time to see the dream come true. BCS Together had an empty house and an MOU with the state. But now it was time to figure out how this fledgling new collaboration with nearly no budget could possibly furnish a place that truly lived up to its new name, The Haven.
As big of dreamers as they are, even they couldn’t have fully prepared for what came next.
Word got out. And the response was overwhelming. A local interior designer volunteered to put design boards together for every room. BCS Together then posted the design boards online with a listing of the cost of all new furnishings for each and asked the community to consider sponsoring a room. Every room was sponsored within 7 days of putting out the call. Here’s just a little taste of how the community responded:
- A foster family sponsored the reading room because they wanted to give back.
- A former CPS adoption worker who now runs a daycare sponsored a room.
- The wives of the Texas A&M Football team coaches sponsored a room.
- A local lawyer who worked on securing the insurance for The Haven called and said that they loved the project so much that they wanted to pick up the insurance costs themselves.
- A group of retired ladies with a passion for snacks supplied The Haven with SO MUCH FOOD.
- Community members provided an overwhelming number of grocery store and restaurant gift cards as well as financial donations.
- A staff member of a local lower-income elementary school organized a penny drive hoping the kids could raise a couple of hundred dollars toward blankets for The Haven. The kids had something else in mind. They raised $2,600.
- A local church covered the security system and the washer and dryer
On that last point, when workers from CPS came to tour the finished product they said, “Oh my gosh, you got us a washer and dryer! We’ve been taking the sheets and blankets and the kids’ clothes and things home with us.” Let that sink in. After they’ve worked a 12 or 16-hour shift sitting up all night with the kids, they took those things with them and washed them in their own homes and brought them back to work the next day.
This brings us to another point. This all only worked because CPS was open to trying something new, letting the community in, and being open about their needs. Jenni and Lauren are effusive about what it has been like to work with their local CPS office on this. Often CPS feels like the community is their biggest critic. But in this case, people like Jenni and Lauren have become their biggest fans.
Lauren shared that being a part of this project has given her more joy than maybe anything she’s ever been a part of. She said, “I mean, it’s just been crazy the response that we’ve gotten and it just, it fills my heart with so much joy because I’m just imagining how these kids are going to feel — how they are going to see that they’re not alone.”
Now that The Haven is open and children have a warm and welcoming home to go to on what is likely one of the scariest days of their lives, the BCS Together team is not done yet. They have their eyes on the next thing: working together to help CPS recruit more than enough foster families so that one day, a place like The Haven may not even be necessary.
What happened in this Texas town can happen in your town too. Help your community to see, help them to dream, and help them to act. The biggest problem your community may face in foster care may not be children sleeping in offices. But no matter the problem you face, your community is the solution.
If you are ready to take your next steps on a project like this, check out this 2-page Launch Guide that BCS Together helped us put together. It contains details, next steps, and tips for doing something similar in your own community!
A version of this article first appeared in Jason Weber’s regular Foster Movement column of the Fostering Families Today magazine (May/June 2021 issue). To learn more about how you or your organization can subscribe to this great resource, click here.