For the children in Embrace Alabama Kids’ Therapeutic Foster Care program, milestones are celebrated often. Children in the program face challenges that pale in comparison to most, and therefore, few deserve a little “star treatment” more than they do. Knowing this, program staff began to dream big after deciding to host a Valentine’s Banquet.
The result of their planning would be a dream come true for kids in the program. Each child received a formal invitation in the mail asking them to get all dressed up for a night of glitz and glamour. Meanwhile, foster parents received their own invitation to enjoy a night out while their children attended the banquet.
With the help of local businesses that donated items as well as Higher Ed scholarship students who served food and got kids on the dance floor, the night quickly became one to remember. “The photo station with a red carpet and chocolate fountain seemed to be their favorites. When they got there, they were a little quiet but as the night went on, the kids really came out of their shell,” said Luke Powell, Program Manager.
In addition to preparing plates ahead of time, kids were required to wear masks and sit with their sibling groups to prevent the spread of COVID-19. After all was said and done, it was clear his team had gone above and beyond with the planning, but from his perspective, that was exactly the point of it all.
“Our kids have already lost so much in the form of their siblings, parents, school, and pets when they left their biological home, so if we can create some really positive memories they can look back on, then that’s a success.”
As a grandmother raising her granddaughter, Linda has some of the same worries many parents do. She wants her granddaughter to be healthy and happy. She prays she and her husband are meeting the child’s emotional needs, and she hopes her granddaughter will always know she’s loved.
One thing Linda doesn’t have to worry about is whether 4-year-old Madison will be ready to start kindergarten. Thanks to the Parents as Teachers program, a national initiative offered in Covington County by Embrace Alabama Kids, Madison is on track to thrive once she starts school. “This program has been such a blessing,” Linda said. “We’re doing everything we can to get her off to a good start so that she will be successful.”
Preparing children for school is one of the most important things parents or caregivers can do, according to Laura Wilkinson, Parent Educator with Embrace Alabama Kids.For many, that means helping children write their names, count to 20, and recognize shapes. They likely don’t give much thought, however, to helping them develop the muscles and pincer grasp necessary to hold a pencil.
“Unless you’re a child development major, you don’t know this stuff,” Wilkinson said.
“The parent is going to be the child’s first and most influential teacher, and we want to show them fun ways they can help their children reach their full potential.”
The program is open to families in Covington County with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, if someone in the family receives Medicaid benefits.The focus is on four areas of development: cognitive, language, social and emotional, and motor.
In addition to introducing fun and easy activities, Wilkinson provides valuable information about child development, tips for helping children learn new skills, and explanations about why certain activities are important at each stage of development. “It may explain that at this age, this part of the child’s brain is developing, and this particular activity helps with that,” Wilkinson said. “Once you know that, you want to do it again and again.”
Madison can’t wait for Wilkinson’s visits. “She is always curious to see what Ms. Laura’s bag of surprises holds each week,” Linda said.
“While she is having fun, she is learning, and I am also seeing how to make learning stick and how to make it fun and interesting.”
Madison recently used kitchen tongs to pick up cotton balls, which helped develop the fine motor coordination necessary for writing. “I like that the activities use what we have around the house. We don’t have to go out and buy special tools,” Linda said.
Reading is an important component. Wilkinson helps each family sign up for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which provides free books each month for children ages birth to 5. She often gives additional books to the children she works with, as well as their older brothers and sisters. “At every visit, either I read a book to the child or the parent reads a book to the child. The goal is for someone in the house to read to the child every day.”
Madison isn’t the only one who has benefited from the program. Linda said Wilkinson has provided important parenting tips. “We relearned that boundaries need to be set and need to be firm,” she said. “Establishing a bedtime schedule and being consistent was something we were lax about, but this wasn’t good for her or us. She functioned better when she went to bed at a reasonable time and we were able to have a little down time.”
Linda said she is grateful for the support Wilkinson has provided. “We have learned how to handle challenges that come up with each age,” she said.
“I quickly came to see Laura as my ally. How fortunate we are that this program exists.”
Editor’s note: The child’s name, Madison, is used in this article in place of her actual name to protect her privacy.
Expanding Parents as Teachers in Alabama
Embrace Alabama Kids has expanded Parents as Teachers (PAT) curriculum to Mobile and Dothan. Ministry staff were already serving vulnerable children and families in these areas and PAT, paired with other parenting curriculum, is a natural fit for the existing programs in both locations.
In Mobile, a Parent Educator was added to the Babies First staff in September prior to curriculum being implemented in October. The Parent Education Program in Mobile was made possible by funding through the Alabama Dept. of Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention and The Children’s Trust Fund.
In the Dothan area, ministry staff are also poised to expand this much needed program, serving children and families in need in Houston, Henry, Dale, Barbour and Geneva counties. Expansion of parent education in the Dothan area, made possible by the Daniel Foundation, will equip more children and families with school readiness and positive parenting.
When David and Janelle Turner went to court in hopes of getting custody of their grandchildren who had been placed in foster care, the judge asked one important question: “Exactly how large is your heart?”
Mrs. Turner thought a moment before answering. She has no biological children of her own – the kids are her stepson’s and his wife’s – and she knew that big changes were ahead. Instead of focusing on the uncertainty, though, she answered from her heart. “It’s big enough for these two,” she said. “I realized you don’t actually have to birth a child to love them. I’m a very tenderhearted, loving person and I have a lot to offer.”
The children, ages 4 and 2, will need plenty of love and stability going forward. Their parents, who at one time lived with the Turners, lost custody of the kids due to excessive drug use, neglect and family conflict. The children were in foster care for eight weeks, and the Embrace Alabama Kids staff helped the Turners with the reunification process and have provided a variety of supportive services.
“I feel like right now we are in a much better place because of what they offered,” Mrs. Turner said. “I’m taking everything they offer to help our family. If we are going to do this, I want it to be done the right way.”
The goal of Embrace Alabama Kid’s Family Preservation program is to provide intensive in-home treatments to equip families with the skills they need to stay together in a safe, healthy home. Statistics show that children who enter foster care have a 50 percent chance of remaining in foster care until they age out, so if reunification with family is possible, that’s the best outcome.
The children’s parents have left the home, and the Family Preservation staff is helping the Turners with parenting and discipline techniques. They’ve established a reward system for the children to encourage good behavior, and have worked together to ensure that the home is safe and in good repair. The staff helped arrange for day care and speech therapy for the children, as well as weekly counseling for the family.
“The things that were causing us heartache are no longer here,” Mrs. Turner said. “Now we’re living in positivity. It’s no longer about us, it’s about the children. It’s about the whole package.”
Christy Foley, a Family Intervention Specialist for Embrace Alabama Kids, said she is pleased with the progress the family has made. The Turners have met each requirement and are helping the children to learn life skills, such as dressing themselves. They have also been diligent in ensuring that the oldest child, who has some health issues, gets the medical care he needs.
“They’re a sweet little family,” Foley said. “This is the only home the children have known and it’s a comfort for them. Mr. and Mrs. Turner love them and take good care of them.”
Mrs. Turner said she is grateful for the support she and her husband have received from the Family Preservation staff. “To me, a family is a whole unit working together to overcome anything that is thrown at them,” she said. “We’re working together as a family. A lot of things are changing, but they’re changing in a positive way.”
A college graduate, Meredith has a full-time job she loves, an apartment of her own, a 401k, insurance, and a support system she never could have imagined. “It’s everything I’ve worked for and wanted,” she said.
Now 26, Meredith (pictured right) was the first graduate in Embrace Alabama Kids’ Higher Education program, which started in 2013. The program, funded largely by a planned gift by Mary Whetstone Knabe, allows students affected by foster care or alternative living situations to attend college at no cost while living in a Embrace Alabama Kids group home. In its first six years, the program has seen 10 students graduate, with three more on track to finish in 2020.
“This program has been more successful than we ever imagined,” said Dr. Blake Horne, President and CEO of Embrace Alabama Kids.
“That population of students typically has a graduation rate of two to five percent, but we have a 60 percent retention rate. A lot of agencies pay for kids to go to school, but the wraparound services we provide have a tremendous impact in ensuring their success.”
Embrace Alabama Kids operates two Higher Education homes – one for men in Tuscaloosa, where most of the students attend the University of Alabama; and another in Florence, for women attending the University of North Alabama.
“One of our goals at Embrace Alabama Kids is to prepare our kids for life so that their adulthoods will be much more stable than their childhoods,” said Rebecca Morris, Senior Vice President of External Affairs for Embrace Alabama Kids. “College is a big part of that and kids from unstable backgrounds have benefited greatly from the extra support our group homes provide.”
In addition to providing a place to live, the staff prepares meals and offers transportation, strong shoulders and a listening ear. Tuition, books and other expenses are also provided.
“I graduated debt-free,” said Joey, who finished at Alabama in May with a degree in Communication Studies and hopes to pursue a career with the U.S. Army. “I don’t think I can fully understand the impact of what they have done for me.”
Embrace Alabama Kids graduates work in a variety of fields, including business, nursing, music ministry, fine arts, and communications. “This program has had almost a mainstreaming effect,” Horne said. “These kids have always just wanted to be normal, and when they finish college it changes their sense of themselves.”
The opportunity was a game-changer for Meredith, who graduated in December 2017 and works in accounting at a national health care company. “I have a future now,” she said. “I never thought I’d be able to go to college, much less a four-year university. If you’re willing to try, they’ll be right there with you.”
For Felicia, who earned a management degree in 2019 and works for a home health care company, that support was invaluable. “They’re like my second family,” she said of the Embrace Alabama Kids staff. “I never want to not be a part of Embrace Alabama Kids. It’s my home. It’s a part of me.”
Timothy Skipper, who recently earned his degree in creative media at the University of Alabama, wrote and directed a short film about a mother’s love and guidance. The topic isn’t all that unusual, unless you consider the fact that Timothy grew up in an abusive home and was placed with a relative after his mother lost custody of him and his siblings.
“My film is about learning strength through resiliency and how important a mother is in a child’s life,” he said of the class project. “It’s very personal to me.”
Timothy, a Knabe Scholar who lived in Embrace Alabama Kids’ higher education home in Tuscaloosa for four years, didn’t have the best role model in his own mother, but he got plenty of love, guidance and nurturing from a group of women he calls “Team Mom.” This special group includes his grandmother, his high school librarian, and several staff members of Embrace Alabama Kids and the University of Alabama.
“I’ve had these women come into my life to show me what the love of a mother is like,” said Timothy, the first in his family to attend college and only the second to graduate from high school. “For the most part, my film was written from my experiences.”
The film, “The Rose That Grew from the Concrete,” premiered in February at the Black Warrior Film Festival, an annual competitive showcase of student films at Alabama. It received the “Audience Choice Award,” voted on by festival-goers.
“In my acceptance speech, I thanked all those who have supported me on this journey, especially the incredible women who have served as mother figures in my life,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without them, and this film wouldn’t have been possible. It’s very affirming that people loved it. I’m pursuing something I’m passionate about and I’m good at, and I have the support of so many wonderful people.”
Timothy, who grew up in poverty, remembers periods of time with no electricity and very little food. His mother drank and was often angry and abusive. When he was 11, he was placed in kinship care with his grandmother.
After learning about Embrace Alabama Kids’ Knabe Scholarship, which provides full tuition, room and board to students in foster care or other alternative living situations, Timothy was hesitant to apply. “I didn’t believe in myself,” he said, adding that his school librarian convinced him to fill out the paperwork.
“That’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” he said. “Embrace Alabama Kids provided me with a home, a family, stability, an education, and lifelong relationships. It means everything to me.”
You can view Timothy’s film, “The Rose That Grew from the Concrete” by clicking here.
For Alexis and Tyler, a day of fishing with their family is about much more than fish. It’s a time to celebrate being together and overcoming the obstacles that nearly drove them apart.
In 2019, after some poor decisions and difficult circumstances, their children were placed with relatives for five months. With the help of UMCH’s Family Preservation program, an in-home intervention program for families in crisis, the couple is grateful to have their children home again.
“It’s one of the worst things you can be faced with as a family, and we made it through that,” Alexis said. “The program allowed me to truly have my family back together. I can’t even put into words how grateful I am.”
The Department of Human Resources got involved with the family last February due to the couple’s past substance abuse history. Their son, who is from Alexis’ previous relationship, was placed with his grandparents, while their daughter went to stay with hers. “It was very hard having them living in separate places,” Alexis said. “They’re very close, and not only were they away from us, they were away from each other.”
Faced with losing their children, Alexis and Tyler met all of their goals, had clean drug tests and worked hard to reunite their family. Before the family was reunited, however, the couple was hit by a drunk driver. Both were injured and Alexis faced multiple surgeries. “They were both out of work for several months,” said Amanda Freeman, the couple’s intervention specialist. “There were a lot of stressors.”
The wreck meant the family was apart even longer. “It was supposed to be a short separation, which is why we agreed to let the kids go to separate homes,” said Alexis, who was in a wheelchair for months. “Because of my injuries, I couldn’t take care of my kids and they didn’t come home until July.”
Not long after the children returned home, Tyler turned himself in for a prior probation
violation and went to jail for 60 days.
“I couldn’t have gotten through it all without Amanda,” Alexis said. “She made sure I kept calm and sane.”
The Family Preservation program is designed to keep families together in safe, loving homes. Staff members meet with families at least twice a month for several months and help parents develop the necessary skills to parent more effectively and to keep their children safe. The program, offered in Alabama and Northwest Florida, has a 95 percent success rate.
“Knowing that there is someone out where who actually cares enough to spend the time with them and teach them makes all the difference.”
“A lot of times when families are in a bad situation, people just talk at them instead of with them,” Freeman said. “Knowing that there is someone out there who actually cares enough to spend the time with them and teach them makes all the difference. To have someone listen and give feedback is one of the biggest reasons for the success rates.”
Alexis and Tyler love their children and were already doing a lot of things right, Freeman said. She helped them identify triggers that led to the drug use and taught them coping techniques. They also focused on parenting techniques, setting boundaries and establishing routines.
“All the things she taught us were very helpful,” Alexis said, adding that she and her husband have grown stronger together. “Amanda and UMCH always had our best interests at heart. She didn’t focus on the negative parts. She helped our family be the best version of us.”
Photo Caption: Former participants in UMCH’s Family Preservation program Tyler Hines and Alexis Campbell and their two children.