By Kathleen Reynolds
Did you know that every month—right here in Napa County—10 to 15 children, newborn to 17 years old, enter the foster care system? Not only that, but half of these children are placed outside of our county, removed from their school, community and everything familiar because Napa does not have enough foster homes available.
Imagine yourself as a child, standing in an unfamiliar place, being handed a paper bag (or worse, a garbage bag) with the just the essentials to get through the night.
Peggy and Tom Smith know that scenario all too well. When they signed up to be foster parents, they learned firsthand how few belongings the children brought with them.
“We saw a lot of need; more than once, we were awakened during the night with a call that an infant was on the way to us,” says Peggy. “My husband had many late-night runs to 7-11 to buy diapers. We started putting together backpacks for foster kids in our garage. We filled the packs with comfort things; a pillow, blanket, nightlight.”
The garage became overstuffed, and Peggy and Tom were being run ragged between their full-time jobs and organizing supplies for foster families. “We saw the demand for helping foster families, not only with materials but also with moral support,” says Peggy. “We started a 501c3 nonprofit, Expressions of Hope, that houses various supplies and holds monthly meetings for foster parents. We mentor, discuss challenges and issues; sometimes a social worker or other professional will join us too.”
They also host informal gatherings such as Dads and Donuts, with foster fathers gathering monthly. Expressions of Hope offers respite nights for foster parents with childcare, including crafts and activities for the kids. This year, they’ve planned a fall barbeque in the parking lot for families and children to reconnect.
She says they were lucky to find a home for the organization at Napa Valley Life Church on Trower Avenue in Napa. “We needed a place to store clothes and we’re very grateful to have this space,” Peggy continues. “The building is attached to the church, and they let us have a whole room, they built walls and areas for the clothing. There’s a separate room for trainings and support. My dream some day is to have a small café with coffee so that foster moms have a quiet place to meet, speak to social workers or for the social workers to be able to plug in their computers to work between appointments.”
“Our ultimate dream is to go mobile and serve outlying areas for foster families in Angwin and Calistoga. If we had a van, we
could load it up with clothes and shoes for the families and drive to their communities.”
Expressions of Hope works with other organizations in Napa County. “We partner with Lilliput (an organization that finds permanent adoptive homes for foster youth); we send parents to them, and they send families to us. We help the teens at Voices with clothing and shoes for job interviews. We’re available to any open cases in the Child Welfare system. We can assist with reunification of families and can provide furniture to set the child up. Family preservation is very important.”
What’s been her biggest surprise in her years of foster care? “Developing relationships with birth parents has been meaningful and important. It’s been helpful working as a team with the goal to get the child back home. If they’re open to it, we stay in touch. We want the child to know they don’t have to pick between their birth or foster parents. We give them the knowledge that they have permission to stay in our lives.”
It’s hard when they leave; you love them so much.” The average stay for foster children in a home is 6 months to 12 or 18 months, depending on their age.
What can you do to help? There’s a List of Needs section on their website expressionsofhopenapa.org that takes you directly to the Amazon website where donors can pick items as small as hairbrushes and baby bottles for $11.99 to larger items like car seats that will be shipped directly to Expressions of Hope. They also have a Foster Kids Fund that is used to pay for things like soccer or other sports, music or art lessons, camp, or anything that helps normalize the experience in foster care.
“Of course, we’re always recruiting,” says Peggy. “We have regular informational orientations for families who might be interested in fostering. It’s sad that we don’t have enough families locally and the children must be sent to Stockton, Modesto or Santa Rosa. Siblings are split up. It’s time consuming for the social workers, too, to travel between out-of-town locations to visit the foster children.”
Various groups in the area have helped with donation drives. Mark Richmond, founding member of the business group Business to Business (B2B) says his group likes to help in the community. They recently collected and donated 142 backpacks filled with school supplies for charities including Expressions of Hope.
“We look for places with the greatest need,” says Mark. “When a child is instantly placed into Child Protective Services, it’s an important time to help. People realize that because this year we received double the donations as last year.”
Peggy explains there are many other ways that the public can help foster kids. “Perhaps you can offer a service, such as haircutting,” she says. “I think foster care scares potential donors. Foster care isn’t scary.”
Foster parents have seen many success stories in every age group. Peggy herself experienced one of them. She and her husband have cared for over 80 children in the last 22 years.
“We took in a 14-year-old girl; this was her seventh foster home,” Peggy says. “It was at least six months before she trusted us. We ended up adopting her and had her for 10 great years. Sadly, she succumbed to (the autoimmune disease) lupus. I consider it a success story because all she wanted was a family. That was her dream. When she passed away, I realized she’d gotten her dream. She had a family.”
Foster children’s lives have turned upside down and they need a safe and loving home to allow them to regain some sense of normalcy. Are you interested in opening your heart and home?
• Expressions of Hope offers quarterly trainings
• You do not need to be married or own your home
• A monthly stipend is provided
• There is an urgent need for sibling
sets, teens and children with
Not everyone can be a foster parent,
but Expressions of Hope has many opportunities to serve children in foster care:
• Sort clothes at their resource center
• Deliver furniture to families
• Provide tutoring help
• Help with transportation for visits and appointments
• Provide a meal for a foster family
• Provide childcare so foster moms and dads can have a date night
• Offer your professional services— hair care, yard maintenance, photography, handyman, tech support, etc.
• Become a CASA—Court Appointed Special Advocate
Contact Expressions of Hope 707-363-1455 by appointment only. Located at 2303 Trower Avenue in Napa, inside Napa Valley Life Church
Visit expressionsofhopenapa.org for more information