Church provides housing for unplaced foster children
By Lindsay Peyton
It all started in 2014 when a kid wandered into the student ministry at Kingwood UMC looking for a glass of water. “Then he brought his siblings,” longtime church member Nanette Lynch recalled. “There were four of them, and they never missed a Sunday.” She had never considered getting involved in a foster ministry before then, but, one thing led to another. The Oasis Ministry was born, One Love Collaborative sprung up, and now KUMC has a dedicated space on campus to temporarily house children in the foster care system.
When the four siblings showed up at KUMC, the church spent time getting to know them and the hardships they faced. After helping them settle in a children’s home, Lynch became a CASA (court appointed special advocates) volunteer for two years. “In court, I would watch parent after parent’s rights get terminated, and these kids would go to foster homes,” she said. “Fostering is extremely difficult.”
She realized that churches could offer the support that foster families need. “We could surround them as a church family and make them feel valued and loved, seen and supported,” she said.
Lynch also wanted to introduce more families to the idea of becoming a foster home – and to “take the chance,” she explained. She went to the missions group at church and suggested they create a foster ministry. “Who’s going to do this?” she asked. “They kept telling me that I had to do that.”
Lynch was convinced that she was not “director material.” Still, her call to help children outweighed her fear of marching into unchartered territory. Her first step seemed easy enough. She started a donation closet – and named it Jordan’s Closet, after the boy who stopped in for water on his walk home from school.
If families get a new placement of a foster child, the church will collect items and bring them to their home. “I get a lot of donations of diapers, baby stuff, goods and clothes,” she said. “Foster parents in the Kingwood, Humble, Atascocita area are aware of the closet. Caseworkers will give them our name, and pretty much now it’s word of mouth.”
That led to a parent’s night out at Kingwood UMC every other month. Lynch explained that foster parents cannot have a babysitter, unless that person is certified. “But they can bring them to church,” she said.
Before long, the Oasis Ministry, also a reference to that life-giving water, was going full throttle. Then, Kingwood UMC connected with others in the community to extend their impact.
Lynch met Marla Wortman and the two became fast friends. “Marla and I are connected at the hip,” Lynch said.
Wortman is a member of nearby Providence Community Church in Atascocita, which offered a support group for families who were fostering or adopting. The congregation also provided financial assistance to families interested in starting the process. “We were just trying to raise awareness in the community,” she said.
At one point, Providence Community Church was contacted by a CPS liaison about a boys’ home, or residential treatment center (RTC). “It was two weeks before Christmas,” Wortman recalled. “And they were like, ‘These kids aren’t going to have any Christmas. Can you help out?’”
There were 30 boys, and the church members committed to doing their best. “We’ll give it a shot,” Wortman said. By the end of two weeks, each child was sponsored.
Wortman delivered the gifts. She toured the facility. “We’ve got to do more for these boys,” she thought.
Providence, however, is a newer church and did not have the resources to support the group home. Still, there were a number of families fostering and adopting in the congregation. “We had the heart, and we had the passion,” she recalled. “It was just like, What can we do? But we can’t do it on our own.”
A friend connected Wortman with Lynch. “I instantly knew Nanette was my kind of people,” Wortman said. Together, they founded One Love Collaborative to serve children in crisis, specifically focusing on the group home residents and staff.
In the three years since they established the organization, businesses, scout troops and members of the community have joined the effort. Atascocita Community Church also got on board. “KUMC is a driving force,” Wortman said. “I cannot say that enough.”
And while all these different volunteers are collaborating to help children, they also benefit from the work, she added. “It’s an opportunity for those who are not believers, or those who are perhaps not engaged in a church, to really see Christ’s love in action,” she said. “Then, that gets them questioning, that’s not what I thought churches do.”
One Love Collaborative started by hosting an Easter Egg Hunt and then grew to offering two or three events each month. When COVID hit, the organization quickly pivoted to providing meals. “The group home was not able to get enough supplies,” Wortman said. “We fed them for four or five months. We provided toiletries and laundry.”
Last summer, as pandemic restrictions lifted, One Love began hosting events again and started mentoring and tutoring programs.
Lynch and Wortman became part of the team that advocated and cared for the children. The boys also attended services at one of the three churches and then spent the rest of Sunday with their mentors.
Then, in May, the group home was shut down by the state. But that did not stop One Love. In fact, it kicked the volunteers into higher gear. “We knew our work was not done,” Wortman said. “We knew there was a lot more to do.”
The caseworkers only had 24 hours to find new homes for the boys. Five of them had nowhere to go and were likely to become “children without placement” (CWOP). These youth often end up sleeping in CPS offices, hotels or motels, because they lack other options.
One Love mentors offered to temporarily house the children. “We had people who loved these boys enough and knew this was a critical time for them,” Wortman said.
One Love also offered resources to the mentors as they became foster homes. “It was a village of support that KUMC provided,” Wortman said. “It was second to none.”
Eventually, all of the children were able to find placement. But Lynch was affected by the experience. She proposed that KUMC start their own CWOP, to perpetually offer space to children when they need it most.
“Nanette is the dreamer,” Wortman said. “The Holy Spirit is nonstop working in that woman.”
Lynch went to church leadership at KUMC. The church already had a couple of apartments on campus. One was provided in ministry to a police officer. The other had served various purposes over the years but had been vacant for a while. “It’s been all sorts of different things, but for the last few years, it really sat with nothing of any substance happening there,” associate pastor Clint Wyllie said.
He wasn’t surprised at all when Lynch had the idea to transform the space for children in need of an emergency shelter – and jumped on board. He went with Lynch to the CWOP coordinator about requirements, and then renovating the space began.
“KUMC stepped up and didn’t blink an eye,” Wortman said. “Nanette and Clint went to bat to make it happen.”
After six weeks of work, the Oasis Shelter opened on Aug. 3. Already 14 boys have found refuge in the two-bedroom apartment.
Two or three children will stay at one time. The police officer in the neighboring apartment has become a friend, watching out for them and sometimes cooking with them.
The Society of St. Stephen’s is housed underneath the apartment, and the boys can shop there when in need. “It’s a beautiful cross-section of ministries,” Wyllie said. “It’s a tying together of the work that God’s been doing.”
Lynch stops by the apartment each morning and afternoon to check on the boys. She tells them, “This is your home. This is your family.”
She points to the church. “Those people within those walls love you so much,” she tells the kids. “They’re praying for y’all.”
Wortman said that providing the best care for the boys also means helping the CPS staff in charge of them. Each child at the shelter is paired with CPS workers whose shifts change three times a day.
“We strongly believe one of the best ways to improve the environment and care for the boys is to also love on the staff and make them comfortable,” Wortman said.
At the Oasis Shelter, food and laundry services are provided. Volunteers bring snacks for the week. “All of these things the staff would normally have to do, and now it’s taken off their plates,” Wortman said.
Photos are placed of the children staying in the shelter on the wall. There is a chore chart for the boys – and they are rewarded with gift cards each week for their contributions.
The churches provide hot meals each night. There is a grocery list that both staff and residents can use to request items. Most children stay between eight and 20 days. One was there for eight weeks.
“We realize this is a band-aide,” Wyllie said. “This is not their ideal placement. Ideally, they’d find good foster homes for these kids.”
But churches have the ability to help, the pastor said. He hopes that other congregations are willing to step in to this type of ministry.
“It’s really not that hard,” he said. “A lot of churches have extra space.”
“If 20 churches took in two kids, that would get them out of hotels and offices,” Lynch added.
She and Wortman have offered to help other churches determine how they can help. “Not everyone is called to foster or adopt,” Wortman said. “But we’re called to do something.”
“We want to keep doing what we’re doing and love these boys,” she added. “We also want to raise awareness and multiply this.”
Wyllie said that the Oasis ministry is proof of the power church members have to create important outreach for the community. “Some of the greatest things that have come out of KUMC have been led by our people, gaining a profound love of God and not being ok with the way the world is, seeing a need and stepping up to meet it,” he said. “The most beautiful thing we can do as pastors is ask, How can we help?”
“Nanette will tell you this has transformed her heart,” he added. “And it’s transformed our church.”