A woman and two children sit on a wooden bench at Freedom Park on a clear morning in 2016. They’re waiting for help from people they don’t know. The older child is holding a handwritten sign on a large poster board that reads, “Charlotte Foster/Adopt/Prospective Parenting Group.”
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Molly Zalewski decided when she was 22 years old that she wanted to be a foster parent.
“I dated this guy and on our first date he told me his mom fostered babies his whole life growing up,” she says. “Before they each left, she knitted them a little sweater. I thought it was the nicest thing I ever heard. And I thought that one day I’d like to do that.”
More than a decade later, Zalewski became a licensed foster parent. Her first placement was in October 2015: two siblings, 11 and 7 years old. They had been severely neglected, couldn’t read and hadn’t attended school. The biological parents weren’t in the picture anymore.
Zalewski realized fairly quickly that the younger child had severe problems. He couldn’t control his anger and Zalewski struggled with what to do. She had no family in the area, no connections to other foster families and no one to offer advice and resources. She felt isolated.
“When we were going through our journey, nobody was really helping me,” says Zalewski, a single 40-year-old nurse anesthetist. “I couldn’t find resources. It was basically like the government dropped two children off at my front door and I had to do everything for them.”
By the end of May 2016, Zalewski was desperate for support. She created a Facebook page, Charlotte Foster/Adopt/Prospective Parenting Group, and invited people to meet at Freedom Park. Her intent was to find a forever home for her two foster children.
Looking back, she knows how dejected and depressed they appeared sitting on the park bench. Fifteen minutes after the designated meeting time, no one showed. The older child who understood the purpose of the meeting asked, “Well, how long are you going to sit here?”
Zalewski replied: “I will sit here until I get help.”
The first person showed up five minutes later. Six people attended the meeting that day. Two of them — Zalewski and Sloan Crawford — would eventually join fellow advocates Becky Santoro and Traci Prillaman to launch Foster Village Charlotte, a nonprofit advocacy group in support of foster families. The organization’s mission is “to create a village of support for our local children in foster care and those caring for them by meeting urgent needs, providing support, and advocating for lasting change in our child welfare system.”
The women first reached out to Chrystal Smith, founder of Foster Village Inc. and Foster Village Austin, to use the brand and logo. Smith was skeptical at first about branching out, but eventually agreed. Foster Village Charlotte is the first affiliate of Foster Village Inc. and became official in April 2018, then launched in June with 30 Bags in 30 Days, collecting welcome packs for 30 children entering foster care.
“It has been inspiring and encouraging to watch Foster Village Charlotte take off and spread our shared mission where it is so greatly needed in Charlotte,” Smith says. “We are so grateful for the partnership and all of the ways we get to bring support and awareness around our most vulnerable. We get to collaborate and cheer each other on to accomplish goals that would be so much harder to do alone.”
Since June, Foster Village Charlotte has clocked in 400 volunteer hours and delivered 40 welcome packs. They are primarily funded by individual community donors, many of whom are friends and family, says Zalewski.
Foster Village Charlotte seeks to ease the pressure on foster families with their programming and services. “Those first few days are so emotionally challenging,” cofounder Traci Prillaman says. “The last thing you want to do is run to Target and get clothes and diapers. We realized there was a need. We knew that in a place as big as Charlotte, there would be people out there who would be willing to help if someone could connect them.”
Foster parents are often given just a few hours’ notice before a new placement. Sometimes children arrive with only the clothes on their back and a toy. Once the foster parent knows the ages and sizes of each child, they can request a free welcome pack through Foster Village’s online form.
A Foster Village volunteer delivers one with brand new items such as toiletries, bedding, age-appropriate clothing and toys. The goal is to drop off the welcome pack within 24 to 48 hours of the request, but typically it arrives within hours.
Brandon Williams, a library assistant at a Charlotte law firm, and his wife, Samantha Williams, a meeting coordinator, started the training and licensing process to become foster parents in 2017. They attended GPS/MAPP (Group Preparation and Selection/Model Approach to Partnership in Parenting), a six-week training program through the Department of Social Services in Mecklenburg County.
In September, the Williamses received a call from DSS about a child arriving that evening. Brandon requested a welcome pack, and a volunteer delivered one the next day.
“For a week, we had someone bringing us a meal almost every night through Foster Village’s network of people,” Brandon says. “You had this community, suddenly, that was very willing to help you out during this first month.”
But Foster Village is about more than providing meals and care packages. It’s a network of people willing to give emotional, physical and mental support to other foster parents. The organization coordinates free training for topics like play therapy and trauma in the brain — all presented by volunteers licensed in that particular field.
At regular meet-ups, parents’ nights and coffee chats, seasoned and new foster parents discuss real-life experiences, knowledge and resources. Information about tutoring, therapists, doctors and mental health programs gets shared among the foster parents. They help one another navigate the school system and paperwork.
And they also come to vent. They’re able to talk with people who understand their unique situation of raising a child who isn’t theirs. They come for perspective and connection.
“We all understand each other,” Zalewski says. “Our kids are not like everybody else’s kids. Our kids come from hard places. And the only people who really understand all of our emotions are other foster families. It’s almost indescribable to anybody else.”
At the end of January, DSS reported that 570 children are in foster care in Mecklenburg County. A foster child spends an average of 18 months in a placement, says Stout. The time is based on the case plan developed by the social worker assigned to the child’s parents.
Jenn Stout oversees the foster care program at Thompson, one of the county’s private child-placing agencies. Like DSS, they also offer foster parent training and licensing. Stout’s been a social worker for 26 years and the director of family support services at Thompson for more than a year. She’s also been a foster parent for 10 years.
“Every situation is different,” Stout says. “The social worker works with the biological parents to address some of the issues that are going on in the home. It could be asking a parent to go to outpatient substance abuse counseling or, if it’s domestic violence, it could be anger management or counseling for the victim.”
The gifts in the welcome packs offer some comfort to the foster children. They begin to feel a sense of belonging.
“You’re leaving your home,” Stout explains. “You’re leaving without your stuff, without your toys, and you’re going to someone else’s house, sleeping in a bed that’s not yours. The amount of loss our foster children go through in less than 24 hours is huge.”
Turnover is a known risk within the fostering community; the idea that foster parents may leave the program at any time. In November 2018, National Council For Adoption (NCFA) wrote about retention rates on its site: “…half of foster families quit fostering within the first year, with many states seeing another double-digit percentage decrease in year two.”
NCFA is currently collecting data about foster families’ experiences through a Parent Recruitment and Retention Project. They’ll use this data to determine how to address the issues. Stout believes “foster parent helping foster parent” may be the best model to help with retention.
“An organized support group like Foster Village absolutely contributes to foster parent retention and it helps with foster parent recruitment,” Stout says. “Actual foster parents are able to give life, and a big picture of what it would like to foster. It doesn’t sound like a marketing thing or a commercial. It sounds real life, passionate.”
Prillaman notices prospective foster parents attending Foster Village activities.
“Just in the last two weeks, we’ve been informed of five families who are becoming licensed foster families because of interactions they had with Foster Village,” Prillaman said in November.
Foster Village Charlotte is one of 10 finalist nonprofit organizations chosen to participate in the 2019 Class of SEED20, a program that supports community initiatives. On March 25, co-founder Becky Santoro will give a three-minute presentation about Foster Village Charlotte to a panel of judges and a community audience at SEED20 OnStage. If selected, Foster Village could receive cash rewards to further promote their mission.
Foster Village’s most recent meetup was much different than that first one at Freedom Park. It was at ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center in January and the turnout was much greater.
“We think we had 40 to 50 families,” Zalewski says of the event. “It was magical. You just hope in your heart it’s going to be OK. The beauty of the foster parent and the foster family and being with these children makes for very nice mornings.”