A Safety Net

By Jennifer Bradley

A single father of two teenage daughters is suddenly hospitalized for months with a serious condition. “Not only does a host family take the girls in for an extended period of time, love them, and help meet their unique needs, but many others help out the father as well,” says Nicole Zorn, southern lakes area director for Safe Families For Children (SFFC).

Zorn continues the story, saying that after months of rehabilitation, the father is able to leave the care center and the family is reunited. “Plus, the support system is still in place today,” she notes.

A SAFE HAVEN

Safe Families for Children is a movement which has been serving families across the country for 10 years, with more than 19,000 temporary placements of children to host families. Zorn says in Wisconsin, SFFC has a network of volunteers in Milwaukee, Racine, Kenosha, Waukesha, Walworth, Rock, Jefferson and Dane counties.

Its mission is to extend community support by hosting vulnerable children and strengthening their families when in crisis, says Zorn. “The SFFC movement is based on the perspective that the safety and health of the children of our communities are the responsibility of each one of us, and that parents are the key to providing long-term safe environments for their children,” she explains.

In the Lake Geneva area, SFFC has been operational for just a year, but during that short time Zorn says the program has partnered with more than a dozen churches as well as multiple schools and agencies in local communities. In the same time period, 28 host families have accepted 46 placements for a total of 2,006 days.

“If you add up all the volunteer hours beyond hosting, such as family coaching, counseling services, volunteer movers, drivers, babysitters, etc., in addition to resources such as furniture, car repairs, rent assistance, diapers, food and clothing, it totals thousands of dollars,” she adds. “This is all due to the generosity of our many volunteers and supporters.”

A HELPING HAND

Zorn says those who work directly with the children are subject to background checks, and households undergo home studies with those living there given background and reference checks. Training is also provided to ensure the well-being of the children placed there.

SFFC family coaches then follow up with the host family, children in placement and placing parent to make sure all are supported and cared for as needed.

In addition to caring for children, Zorn says it’s obvious by the list of services SFFC provides that there are many ways to help besides hosting children. Anybody can serve too, she adds. “This is a great way to love our neighbors and those who may be marginalized or living on the fringes in isolation,” Zorn comments. “It’s an opportunity to demonstrate that all lives in our community are valuable.”

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Families in crisis are referred to SFFC by schools, hospitals, social workers, churches, law enforcement or other community agencies. Zorn’s office arranges for those children to be placed with an approved host family until the family is able to be reunited in a safe, healthy environment.

She says the program is voluntary for families considering placement for their children and it’s also free. Parents never lose their rights, but instead are encouraged to build a relationship with the host family and stay involved in every aspect of their children’s lives.

Zorn gives another example of a single mom who struggled with drug addiction for many years. Her two children were given a place to stay through SFFC while their mother completed a drug treatment program. “After completing the program, she continued to receive support through friends and church members who were involved with her children during her treatment,” Zorn says.

Host families are not compensated for their service, and Zorn says that parents considering placing their children understand compassion is what motivates them, not finances. The family mentioned earlier, who opened their home to the two teenage girls while their father was hospitalized, is a prime example of this caring attitude.

Zorn shares this statement from that family: “We have two young sons of our own, so we were definitely stepping outside of our comfort zone when we said yes to taking in two teenage girls. They loved their dad and couldn’t wait to be reunited with him, but for the time being, they needed a home and some trusted adults who could mentor and support them during this time away from their father.”

“We were surprised how easy it was to love someone else’s kids. We quickly developed a relationship with them, and they with our boys. Even now that they have gone home we are still able to spend time with them and their dad in a meaningful way. We cherish the relationship we can have with this whole family. Not only does our family have a new relationship, but we were amazed at how many of our friends, family and church members rallied to provide support to a family they didn’t even know.”

IT TAKES A VILLAGE, OR MORE

Zorn says three churches from three different Walworth County communities were involved to support this placement and teams of people helped move the family’s belongings into storage when the dad was hospitalized. They also cleaned the home for the landlord.

The host family also partnered with local agencies such as Side by Side and The Time is Now to help tie up unresolved issues with bills and landlords, and to secure a vehicle for the girls. Many others donated things such as a storage unit and furniture for the family when the father came home.

The family’s statement continues: “Serving in Safe Families is not something we do on our own. It is something we do in our community, a way for Walworth County to expand its concept of what a neighbor looks like and to open our hearts and homes to provide for those around us in need.”

Zorn agrees. She says those who have served are encouraging others to do the same. While the Lake Geneva area is in a beautiful part of the state filled with lakes, parks and historic homes, Zorn says it’s often overlooked that the two largest school districts in the county have a greater than 50 percent need in their student bodies for the free and reduced lunch program.

“Amidst the beauty and grandeur of Walworth County there is sweeping poverty and homelessness,” she adds. “Just under 10,000 people live in this county without health insurance.”

Zorn says many great agencies such as Open Arms Free Clinic, Community Action, Walworth County Housing Authority and local food pantries are just a few of those that help care for those in need. SFFC is another.

“We know that just being a single parent living in isolation is difficult, so is hosting a child for a family in crisis, if that host family is serving alone,” she concludes. “That is why it is our desire to have many volunteers not only supporting each other, but reaching out to others around us.”

To get involved, visit www.safefamilieswi.org/how-you-can-help/ or contact Zorn directly.

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