Some children bound through the glass doors, prancing eagerly on tiptoe to the sign-in table. Others enter hesitantly, casting a wary eye while clinging to a hand or coattail for assurance.
Children and adults alike are greeted warmly with a smile, a touch or a question by longtime volunteers Colleen Powell and Lisa Phillips. Other volunteers mix lemonade and deliver pizza.
It is the third Thursday of the month at The Chapel church on Fort Wayne's west side. For three hours, Allen County foster parents will fellowship over a meal and participate in required training, while their foster children enjoy dinner, crafts, stories and gym time through the church's Fostering Hope outreach.
“Fostering Hope night began four years ago,” recalls Phillips, director of Hope to Orphans (H2O), the church's ministry to local and global orphans. “I was asked why, (if) we do so much globally, ... shouldn't we do something here?”
Phillips and her husband, Paul, are the parents of six children — three of whom they adopted from China.
“After our first adoption, we felt God tugging on our hearts to do something more,” she explains. “We started by volunteering in outreach at The Chapel and going on mission trips.”
Phillips' first trip to Belize was life-changing as she observed that children placed in foster care thrived more than those raised in an orphanage.
“My children are from orphanages,” she says, “and seeing them thrive and love and grow made me realize that everyone deserves love and a family. The kids are innocent — they didn't ask to be born into that situation, whether it is on the street, foster care or in an orphanage.”
Within six months and with the assistance of other volunteers at the church, H2O was born. Fostering Hope nights grew out of a collaboration with the Foster Parent Association of Allen County (FPA) and the need for child care during state-mandated training sessions.
A temporary home
The ideal is for every child to be raised in a safe, stable, nurturing home; to enjoy good health; to experience success in school; and to become a self-sufficient and responsible adult. Some children are deprived of that experience.
“Foster care is a temporary place for children to be placed until their family can get them back,” explains Cindy Scotton, president of FPA for 16 years. “Children come into foster care because of abuse (sexual and physical), neglect and many other reasons.”
She estimates nearly a half-million children are in foster care in the United States. Many shuttle from foster home to foster home, their pitifully few belongings clutched in a trash bag. Some eventually return to their birth homes, some are adopted into a “forever family” and some “age out” of the system as independent adults.
Scotton and her husband, Robert, foster care givers for 27 years, are parents of a foster daughter adopted 18 years ago. The challenges are great, but the rewards are greater.
“So many children come into care with so many different problems,” she says. “To see a child leave your home a different child (because of) all the work you've done to change their life, ... the joy of foster care is to see the children in your home thrive.”
A night out
FPA formed in 1983 with a handful in attendance. It now averages 50-100 people each month.
For several years, they struggled to find a suitable location for training sessions after funding cuts limited their options.
“That's when The Chapel opened its doors,” Phillips says. “It was a fit. This was all God's timing.”
Fostering Hope serves 30-50 families each month at the church, 1505 West Hamilton Road S.
“We provide a large meeting room for the adults — a private, safe place to meet,” she continues, “and rooms for the kids to have dinner, a craft, a story ... Bible stories that incorporate character lessons, morals, values, basic manners and the love of Christ.”
Some nights they have 25 children, other nights 120.
There are six age groups from infant to 18 years, and boys and girls are separated, says Phillips. About 50 volunteers are trained to help, with 25 regulars.
“We wanted the children to see the same face every month,” she says. “We've been blessed to have people step up and be faithful — be the hands and feet of Christ — and love on these kids. Volunteers ... donate clothing, games, toys, zoo passes, gift baskets ... (and) love and energy for the kids.”
Each December, they also partner with the Christ Child Society for a Christmas party similar in scope and style to a school carnival.
“One year, we even had a reindeer,” Phillips says with a laugh.
Children and the future
Some children have been adopted out of the system, Phillips says, and some of the volunteers have begun fostering, adopting from foster care or pursuing global adoptions.
“Children are the future,” says Phillips. “We need to bring family back into the equation. These kids deserve to be in a family, foster family, adoptive family and God's family.”
“I see God's hand in all of this,” she adds. “He does it all, and we are blessed.”