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Article from Cincinnati Enquirer
Krista and Howard Lorenz know they can't fix all of the challenges faced by the more than 1,500 children in foster care in Greater Cincinnati.
So the Deerfield Township couple decided to tackle a few they can.
Two years ago, the foster-turned-adoptive parents launched Warm Welcomes Foster Care Outreach, a non-profit organization that seeks to help children in foster care feel less like a forgotten part of "the system" and more like normal kids who deserve safe and loving homes.
Since then, the fast-growing organization has touched the lives of hundreds of foster children in Warren, Butler and Hamilton counties.
"We believe that we want to promote a sense of welcome into the community the way we believe God welcomes us into his family," said Krista.
The Lorenzes create that sense of belonging through a variety of outreach programs designed to encourage, enrich and empower children in foster care.
The effort begins with "welcome bags" -- backpacks stuffed with blankets, toiletries, books and craft activities and a stuffed animal or pillow. The bags are provided to social workers to give to children taken into foster care.
The bags also work double-duty as a suitcase for children who too often have to schlepp their belongings around in trash bags when removed from their homes or moved to a new foster placement
"It's further insult to injury for a child to be coming out of their home and being moved into placement with their stuff thrown into a trash bag," explained Krista.
That effort led to "welcome-while-you-wait" bins -- plastic tubs filled with toys, coloring books, snacks, drinks, diapers, baby formula and lice kits. The bins are placed at children's services agencies as a way to entertain and distract new arrivals as social workers arrange emergency placements.
"There are case workers pulling money out their purse or trying to get change out of their car to try to feed kids something from a vending machine because they're waiting there for three hours for a placement," said Krista, who considered the fix a no-brainer. "If the community can fix that problem, we should."
Last month, Warm Welcomes volunteers distributed eight welcome bins to the Hamilton County Department of Jobs and Family Services, which counts about 900 children in foster care on any given day.
"Our workers had been spending their own money on those supplies," said Jane Prendergast, a communications specialist with the agency. "Now all of our intake and children's services supervisors have a box of supplies at their desk for the next kids who have to spend some time here."
Taking on the unmet needs of the foster care system wasn't on the Lorenzes' minds in 2002 when they saw a note in their church's bulletin about an upcoming meeting on international adoption.
The notice pulled at the heartstrings of Krista and Howard, who months earlier had welcomed Leah, their firstborn. The Lorenzes weren't ready to adopt just then, but the idea stubbornly stuck with them.
It persisted in their hearts and minds as they moved to Kentucky and then back to Warren County, and again with the births of two more biological children, Porter and Josie.
Then, in 2009, Krista and Howard happened to meet three different foster parents within a two-week span. The couple took it as a sign and enrolled in the 36-hour training course to become foster parents in Ohio.
"Our hearts just broke that there were kids who were here and didn't have someone to take them home," said Krista. "I remember thinking, we have all this love and we can use it for something like this."
Licensed later that year, the couple provided short-term care for several children before they were asked to open their hearts and home to Maryn, a newborn who'd been born premature and underweight.
Eighteen months later, the call came about Maryn's toddler sister, Julia, who had previously been placed in a separate foster home.
With the formal adoption of both girls in 2012, Howard and Krista knew their family was complete. A year later, the family, now desperately familiar with the system's strengths and its shortcomings, launched Warm Welcomes.
The idea was simple, drawing inspiration from the Bible, Luke 9:48: "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest."
In the first year, Warm Welcomes volunteers packed and distributed 50 welcome bags. The next year, that number more than doubled to 125 bags.
The results were instant and palpable. One social worker told Krista that when she handed a bag to a young boy, he looked up in unexpected wonder and asked, "Is it Christmas?"
Bolstered by their success, that effort soon expanded into welcome parties, free events for foster families held several times a year at local sports complexes and recreational facilities.
The parties not only provide an opportunity for foster children to be around other kids who share and understand their experiences, but also incorporate activities that instill a sense of self-empowerment, Krista said.
There's more: At an upcoming event, children will have the chance to pack bags with donated items to distribute to an organization that works with homeless people. "It's our way of having kids who've been victimized be able to give back and feel powerful about that," said Krista.
The couple also rallies photographers and crafters to help create scrapbooks of children's lives and holds holiday shops where children can "shop" for gifts to give to others.
Krista recalls one holiday shopping excursion in which an anxious 12-year-old boy agonized over whether to select a pair of socks or a tacky Christmas tree-shaped spatula to give to a foster family member. After he deciding on the spatula, Krista offered to hold it for him while he attended brunch.
"For an hour-and-a-half, I carried that spatula under my arm, in my back pocket or in my hand. When he came back, he was like, 'You have it!,'" Krista said.
"He was a kid who had reason not to trust an adult. He chose to trust me about this $1 spatula. When he came back, he now has a memory that 'I trusted an adult who did what they were going to say,' " she said.
Throughout the year, the Lorenzes also see the need for more foster parents and work to promote and raise awareness about that.
"People just assume they can't do it," said Howard. "They assume you have to have a glut of time or money to be able to do it ---"
"Or a saint, or that you have to be married, own a home, be wealthy, that kids have a lot of issues," added Krista.
"…and it's just not true," finished Howard.
"It just takes ordinary people willing to take a leap," Krista said. "We're nothing special. But because of taking this leap, we've been able to build something special."
HOW TO HELP
Warm Welcomes depends on volunteers and donations to serve children in foster care in Warren, Butler and Hamilton counties. Want to get involved?
Here are some ways to help:
- Launched from the Lorenzes' basement, Warm Welcomes is in need of affordable office space to accommodate a growing number of volunteers and donations.
- Sponsor a donation drive for items on the organization's wish list.
- Volunteer to pack welcome bags.
- Help plan and staff welcome parties.
- Make handmade birthday and thinking of you cards and scrapbooks.
- Donate professional skills, such as photography, grant writing and graphic design services.
For more information, go to warmwelcomes.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.