by Kendra Paulton
I love how our God is so intensely relational. His heart and passion for connectivity is interwoven in the tapestry of our lives so intricately, that sometimes we do not realize it until we take a step back and marvel at what He has done.
A couple of years ago, God revealed a plan that He had been working on for years. I was sitting at my computer, scrolling through emails and Facebook messages, when a simple message on my photography business page stopped me in my tracks.
“Hi! I’m Kristi Woolsey. You may not remember me, but I was a bridesmaid at a wedding you photographed last summer . . . .”
Kristi, who I found out to be the director of South Dakota Kids Belong (SDKB), explained to me the mission of the organization and the idea of using Collective Impact so that every child has a home—a place to belong. Specifically, she asked if I would be willing to partner with SDKB, using my creative abilities in my photography business, to help give a face and a voice to children by volunteering to assist with photo sessions. Without hesitation, I said, “Absolutely.”
The first time I walked into a church to help photograph these precious children who were in foster care awaiting an adoptive family, my heart was broken. These kids are right in our own backyard, I kept thinking. Why didn’t I know about them?
We photographed the children, played with them and encouraged them, all while praying that God would connect these children to the perfect adoptive families. I spent only minutes with each child as I took portraits, but their faces were forever ingrained on my heart.
Oftentimes one of the first things you’ll hear when foster care is mentioned is, “Oh, that would be so hard.” Or, “I could never do that. I would get too attached.” The list goes on.
But then a quote by Jason Johnson, National Director of Church Ministry Initiatives for CAFO, stopped me in my tracks: “We're not all called to do the same thing, but we are all capable of doing something.”
And so I prayed. “God, what would you have me to do?”
The answer came through a friend, somebody I had worked with at a camp ministry when we were both in high school. Jacob had been adopted from South Korea when he was just a baby, and has always been an adamant advocate for the orphaned and vulnerable children across the world. Jacob invited me that same fall to host an Orphan/Stand Sunday event utilizing the Christian Alliance for the Orphan (CAFO) resources.
I dug into CAFO’s website and began listening to podcasts, watching videos, and reading articles obsessively. I listened to testimony after testimony and had conversations with former and current foster and adoptive parents. I researched statistics and prayed that they could be changed.
Our church’s first event was simple but impactful. I invited a few speakers (former foster parents, Jacob’s adoptive parents, and our local Department of Family Services Social Worker) and we shared statistics of adoption and foster care within Wyoming, the United States, and globally.
I had literature on the back table and encouraged people to make connections and to pray. We talked about God’s command in James 1:27 to care for the fatherless. I ended the service with a simple statement. “Even if you are not called to have a child in your home, you are capable of supporting those who do.”
This statement (which I’m pretty sure I heard on a podcast somewhere) has been the driving force behind what has become a Foster Care Wrap Around ministry in our little town in Newcastle, Wyoming.
Foster care is hard. It is hard for the child, for the foster parents and their biological families, and for the social workers. But I learned that when the Church steps up as the Body of Christ and everybody works together . . . something beautiful can happen.
To quote CAFO, “Foster care movement happens when fully-engaged churches prayerfully work together in their county with a vision to provide more than enough for kids and families where they live . . . .”
The goal in our church is not to create just another ministry that people can toss money at or show up to an event one time a year. Rather, we want to cultivate a culture of continual, consistent care for everybody involved in foster care in Weston County, Wyoming (and beyond).
One way we do this is by hosting an Orphan/Stand Sunday event each November at our church, Church on the Hill. In 2019, we partnered with another church in town and hosted our services together. Damen Woolsey (SDKB) spoke, and I also invited our area social workers and pregnancy resource center volunteers, among others, to be in the crowd and available for questions. Each table had discussion questions I encouraged the congregation to engage in during fellowship after the service. I also put a list of people to pray for and a list of current needs in Weston County at each table.
One of the things I have found most valuable is to reach out specifically to our local social workers about current needs. By establishing a consistent relationship with our local Department of Family Services, we tell them “The Church is here to pray for you, to come alongside you, and to assist you in whatever way that may be.” About once every month or two, I try to send an email to their office to check in.
Social work really is a hard job. Social workers see the worst sides and the most tragic stories within the communities in which they reside. They enforce decisions and are mediators between struggling biological parents, brave foster families, courageous foster children, counselors, lawyers, judges, and more. Tragedies and hardships keep them awake at night, and due to confidentiality, they have few outlets in which to release their anxieties.
By the church reaching out with simple cards dropped off at the office, emails saying “we are praying for you,” or even a delivery of donuts and coffee, a Wrap Around Ministry can serve as a basis of encouragement and hope for some of the front line workers in the realm of foster care.
By utilizing an email group, each month I update individuals who have volunteered to be a part of the Wrap Around Ministry with current needs or goals for the month. That way, one person can volunteer to reach out to foster families or social workers in some way each month, so that the burden is distributed and nobody gets burned out. We are each able to use our unique gifts the Lord has given, so we can truly all help in some way.
At Christmastime, and again in the spring, we work to put together Baskets of Blessings for foster families and social worker families. One month, a volunteer made freezer meals for each of the five foster families and the social workers in our county. The next month we dedicated to prayer.
At our church at Church on the Hill in Newcastle, we integrated a ministry budget specifically for the Wrap Around Ministry. DFS knows that we have funds ready and available any time they have a need—whether that be the purchase of food, clothing, car seats, gas . . . the Church is available and ready to help in real, tangible ways.
One of the biggest ways I believe our wrap around ministry has been so successful is that I try to continually update and remind people that foster care is an ongoing need. It is so easy to show up for Orphan Sunday, or for a Christmas gift wrapping 19 party, but by creating a mindset of continual care for our foster families in Weston County, we hope to be the hands and feet of Jesus every single day.
I would encourage anybody wondering how you might fulfill the command in James 1:27 to prayerfully consider how the Lord would use you, specifically, to care for the vulnerable right in your own community.
Our pastor has an acronym the Lord gave him in 2018 that gave me the clarity and boldness to step into the role of Wrap Around leadership in Weston County. The summary of it is this: We are all fruitbearers for Christ. What are your G.R.A.P.E.S.?
What are your Gifts?
What are your Resources?
What are your Abilities?
What is your Personality and Passion?
What are your life Experiences?
And lastly, What is your current life Situation . . .
And how are you using these GRAPES for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom?
I like to say when I speak at churches, “I could go through this entire acronym of GRAPES and get all the way through the letter ‘E’ with why I should be a foster parent myself. But, then I get to the ‘S’—my current life situation—and I realize that is not where the Lord has me today. But, what God has done is give me a loud mouth and the opportunity to use a microphone.”
Brothers and sisters, we are not all called to do the same thing. But, we can all do some thing.
Kendra Paulton is a freelance writer, photographer, and Certified StoryWay Guide specializing in publishing family Legacy Books. She resides in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota on a fourth generation cattle ranch with her husband, five children, and pack of German Shepherds. Visit her website www.dakotacanyonranch.com to connect.