It was just a little suitcase sitting next to a child-sized book bag.
A pillow had been placed with care on top, balancing neatly so the pillowcase didn’t touch the cold concrete below.
Under better circumstances, this might only have meant some lucky child was eagerly preparing for a family vacation, or planning a sleepover with friends.
But on the front steps of Angels’ Arms, this sight was much more sobering. These were the worldly belongings of a 12-year-old who had just come into the foster care system.
“We arrived at the office the other morning, and on the front steps was the suitcase, a book bag and a pillow,” said Jasmina Schue, assistant executive director of Angels’ Arms. “It made things real in that moment. Often times when kids get dropped off at their foster homes, they don’t come with anything – or they’ll come with clothes in a trash bag. This is the reality for these kids. Their belongings get packed up and they’re whisked away from their home. It’s very scary for these kids.”
Angels’ Arms, a 2017 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee, is dedicated to providing and supporting loving homes for foster children by keeping brothers and sisters together within a nurturing family until a forever home is found.
The nonprofit, founded in 2000, works with qualified and experienced foster parents who are doing a great job caring for the children, but need a bigger home and/or more resources.
“The hardest part of this is finding qualified and experienced foster parents,” said Bess Wilfong, executive director of Angels’ Arms.
“When we do,” Wilfong continued, “we give them the opportunity to live in one of the homes that we provide and in turn they take in foster children with an emphasis on keeping siblings together. A lot of times these kids are long-term placements.”
Some of the parents were fostering two or three children, and could have taken more if they had the room. Others had five or six foster children and were just way too crowded in their existing homes.
It’s a common misconception that each foster child is required to have their own bedroom in order for the child to be placed with a family, Schue said.
“We had a social worker call and say, ‘do you have any homes in the O’Fallon area? Because we have a family living in a trailer and they have five foster kids,'” Wilfong said. “They’re the most loving people. They just needed more space and more money. In six months’ time, they moved into a new home out there. It’s so amazing to see them interact with all the kids and to be so happy just to have a garage and a backyard for the kids to play in.”
By moving into an Angels’ Arms property, foster parents are able not only to care for the children in a better environment, but some can accept more children – an important factor in a system where siblings are often separated.
Most people that foster can only take one or two kids, based on resources and the space in their home.
“Caring for kids is costly, and the state provides a very minimal stipend,” Wilfong said. “At Angels’ Arms, our parents can take more kids, and engage the community and provide resources, financial resources, helping fund various things that the children may want to take part in. Whereas the traditional foster parent may not have access to those resources.”
The parents in the Angels’ Arms homes are qualified and experienced, so they’re able to take multiple placements – often up to five, six or seven children.
“It’s very uncommon for a social worker to call and hear ‘oh sure I can take three or four,'” Wilfong said. “Sometimes they leave them in a place they shouldn’t be just so they don’t have to split them up.”
Angels’ Arms has had a few instances where sibling groups have been reunited – a gratifying experience to say the least.
Two years ago, a sibling group of three arrived to live with a pair of Angels’ Arms foster parents. But two of the children’s other siblings were living elsewhere. This past Christmas, a fourth sibling joined them in the home, and in January, the fifth came to live with them as well. Now, all five siblings are together again. They range in ages from 3 to 10.
The nonprofit currently has 12 homes for foster parents and a transitional housing apartment for kids who are aging out of the system but are going to college and working.
In addition to providing the homes, Angels’ Arms also helps the parents provide the children with other things they need – from clothing to equipment for school activities.
“We try to meet all the needs that the parents see for these children,” Wilfong said. “For instance, they’ll say we have a child who needs clothing, because they came with very little or nothing. Or if a child is interested in camps or activities, we help defray the cost of all of those. We also assist with some medical things, because it’s difficult to find Medicaid doctors or dentists.”
Angels’ Arms does not receive any state or federal funding, and exists primarily on individual donations and grants. They also work hard to develop partnerships within the community.
“It’s all about community and opening up the system to the community so other people can get involved in these children’s lives,” Wilfong said.
Over the years they have helped 500 foster children, including 127 sibling groups.
“Not everyone can foster but you can still be involved by supporting these foster children in various ways,” Schue said. “The assumption is that foster children are taken care of but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
The SOS funding has helped Angels’ Arms offer the foster parents the support they need – an obstacle that sometimes gets in the way of successful fostering.
“Sometimes the parents don’t have enough support to do the job but the parents in our homes have experience, they’re flexible, they have the drive and they’re up for the challenges and – they have us,” Wilfong said. “They can come to us and say they need help. That’s really what’s missing in the whole system – there’s no support system for the parents.“
The SOS grant helped pay for everything from the mortgages on the homes and upkeep on the 13 properties to things the children need and want, such as camp, clothing, college application costs, homecoming and sports.
Though some of the children are only with their families for a short time, most of the kids have been with their Angels’ Arms foster parents for several years at least.
“Sometimes the kids stay with us the entire time and we see them all the way into college, so Angels’ Arms really is their family,”Wilfong said. “Sometimes they do get to return home – some of the kids go to a relative placement.”