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Foster care ministry keeps families together

Toys and household goods await delivery to those in need. The foster care ministry at St. James United Methodist Church in Little Rock, Ark., has provided furniture, clothes, food and toys for some 60 families. A UMNS photo by Heather Hahn

By Heather Hahn*

At 22 and fresh out of college, Robyne Stout suddenly found herself with two active little boys to rear.

Stout’s sister had long struggled with substance abuse, and Stout’s 7- and 6-year-old nephews, Deshawn and Mario, were at risk of growing up in the state’s foster care system. Stout was determined not to let that happen.

But like most recent college graduates, she had barely any furniture or savings.

Members of St. James United Methodist Church came to the family’s rescue. The church provided Stout with a living room set, dresser, bunk bed for the boys and washer and dryer.

“I am just so happy they came into my life,” Stout said. “Everything has been working out because God had a plan from the beginning — no doubt about it.”

“I started putting two and two together, and I saw things in my life that made me realize God has taken me down this path with this mission.”
–James Jeffery

The foster care ministry reunites children in state custody with their families by providing household basics. For the past 18 months, the ministry has provided furniture, clothes, food and toys for some 60 families.

Church volunteers have helped bring stability to the lives of Hurricane Katrina evacuees and have set up house for newly independent 18-year-olds who have graduated out of the foster care system.

It is a ministry that state officials say they would love to see replicated by churches across the state. According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services, some 3,500 of the state’s children are in foster care on any given day.

The vast majority of those children have landed in state custody not because of abuse or neglect, but because their families cannot afford their primary needs, said Angela Foy, a social service aide in Pulaski County.

“Without St. James providing the assistance it has, we would not have been able to help a number of families keep their children in the home or return the children to their home,” Foy said. “It has been a tremendous help and a great ray of hope for a lot of the families.”

Christmas wishes

The ministry started in late 2007 when the church displayed an Angel Tree for parishioners to “adopt” about 70 Pulaski County foster children for Christmas.

St. James member Alison Karrh and her family chose the Christmas wish list of an 18-year-old boy named Patrick.

“We treated him like one of our own and bought everything on his list,” Karrh said. “I really focused on this child and prayed for him. I put in little notes that said, ‘Patrick, I hope this jacket keeps you warm,’ ‘God loves you,’ things like that.”

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But Karrh wasn’t satisfied with just providing gifts for a teen. She and other members of her Sunday school class brought cookies, punch and decorations to the Christmas party where the gifts were distributed.

At the party, Karrh decided she wanted to do what she could for foster kids throughout the year.

She began collecting donated furniture from friends and fellow church members, often using her own money to supply a family’s needs.

But soon she realized the project had grown too big for her alone. So she asked Brenda Weeks, St. James director of mission outreach, to help coordinate the ministry. Around 25 to 30 church members now regularly volunteer.

Public officials refer clients to the St. James program. Karrh makes a site visit to the client’s home and consults with both the family and the case worker to ascertain their needs. 

Weeks will e-mail the congregation and put a notice in the church bulletin or newsletter with the list of items.

“Nine times out of 10 before the day is over, we have everything this family needs,” Weeks said. “It’s just incredible.”

The foster care ministry also received a $3,000 grant from the Arkansas Conference office for new mattresses.

Delivering faith

The ministry also can be transformative for volunteers.

James Jeffery began delivering furniture for the ministry about a year ago at the request of his wife, Stacy. Jeffery said he and religion didn’t have the best history, and he had mainly joined St. James for his young daughter’s sake.

“Everything has been working out because God had a plan from the beginning.”
–Robyne Stout

But then he started regularly using a church van to deliver furniture to families across the county. He would often pack extra toys for the children, some of whom would press their faces against the window whenever they saw him coming.

He said he was just going with the flow of skipping worship and making deliveries until one day while watching television he stumbled upon a speech by the late Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity.

“I immediately made the connection between what he was doing with Habitat and what we are doing with this,” Jeffery said. “I started putting two and two together, and I saw things in my life that made me realize God has taken me down this path with this mission.”

He now attends worship regularly at St. James with his wife and daughter.

Karrh says she is “overwhelmed that God has used this ministry to touch the lives of so many different people. It has blessed people who are helping in the ministry. It has blessed me.”

*Hahn is editor of the Arkansas United Methodist.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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