Florida Baptist Children’s Homes’ Emily Petrilli and Janelle Hanaburgh receive a community impact grant from Southwest Florida Community Foundation President & CEO Sarah Owen. COURTESY PHOTO

The question asked of a child after her stay with a foster family was a moving one: “What do you think was the best thing about this family?” Her answer was equally stirring: “They loved me.”

That feeling embodies the care and compassion at the heart of the One More Child foster care program. An effort of Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, the initiative serves children who are at risk because of difficult home environments and in need of safe, stable living arrangements. The nonprofit’s efforts have become even more crucial as the wide-ranging impacts of COVID-19 have created added pressure for children in need of foster care.

During “normal” times, although their living situations may have been extremely challenging for any number of reasons, these young residents could at minimum rely on the routine stability of the school week, teachers and friends. But the pandemic has tossed those former constants into turmoil as well, upending a sense of support and stability that are essential for children to develop academically, socially and emotionally.

“These kids have been through so much already, and this is just more added stress and trauma,” says Janelle Hanaburgh, One More Child’s director of foster care. The organization works with the Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, training and licensing foster parents, as well as matching and placing children with foster families. Over the past two years, One More Child has arranged foster care for more than 700 Southwest Florida children as it licensed nearly 300 foster homes.

As difficult as it’s been for these vulnerable children during the ongoing disruptions of the virus, Ms. Hanaburgh explains that trends in foster care suggest the likelihood of even more challenging times ahead. Given the added pressure families are under related to COVID-19, from job loss and financial difficulties to social quarantining, she anticipates an even greater need for foster parents when children who have been isolated in troubled homes return to school. This is when the physical and emotional results of such pressures can come to the attention of school staff members who are required to report issues, concerns or suspicions regarding abuse, neglect or abandonment to the Florida Department of Children and Families.

“Unfortunately,” Ms. Hanaburgh says, “we’re expecting to see an increase in the number of kids coming into care. And that is when we will really need foster parents.”

One More Child is currently on a heightened mission to recruit, train and license adults who are interested in fostering children in need. “We’ve been adjusting our efforts and thinking outside the box,” she says. “As a faith-based agency, a lot of our recruiting is done through churches. Even though they might not have been meeting in person, they will assist us with social media outreach.”

The One More Child staff has also ramped up its internal social media efforts and has transitioned a range of key communications, training and education components to the Zoom video platform. “It’s been amazing to see how the social media outreach connects with someone who knows someone, or someone sees a post and shares it, and it reaches someone who is interested.”

A key focus is to remove potential barriers that inhibit the ability of foster parents to provide a loving, stable home. Such barriers can be as broad as helping with the financial resources necessary to support a child or children in their foster home, or it might be something as everyday functional as buying an extra bed in order to foster multiple siblings together.

Additionally, Ms. Hanaburgh says,

“During COVID, we’ve also been able to help some families who may have already been licensed, but are in the process of renewing right now and may be having a difficult time because of a number of reasons related to the public health situation.”

During these times of added stress and economic uncertainty, Ms. Hanaburgh says the support of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation has been immeasurable. “We’ve had some foster families who have lost jobs, and the foundation’s grant-funds have gone to needed support for our foster families, as well as our recruiting and licensing of additional families, which is more important than ever right now.”

As these unprecedented times have closed down much of life as we know it, One More Child continues with its mission to keep the pathway open for foster children in need of faith for today, hope for tomorrow and the love to see them through the storms roiling their lives. And if their expressions of gratitude are a window to their hearts, perhaps, as the Good Book says, the greatest of these is love. ¦

— This article is part of a series that highlights the vital work of regional recipients of 2020 Community Impact Grants from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.