WAXAHACHIE — A desire to "engage, equip, and empower” is at the very core of a phenomenon happening within Ellis County. Neglected and rejected kids either orphaned or fostered are finding their forever homes thanks to a local nonprofit, The Keep. Networking communities, families, and the state, The Keep is significantly improving the quality of orphan care more than ever before.

With approximately 400,000 children currently in the U.S., 30,000 are within the foster care system, a hard reality to come to grips with. However, for one man, those numbers are turned into faces, personalities, and names, but most importantly — a child needing a home. Bishop Aaron Blake, President of The Keep, had already long felt the weight of the foster care system when a young man stepped into the picture.

“One kid came into my life named, Melvin. When he came into my life that changed my world. We wound up taking him in, then six other teenage boys,” said Blake as he recalled the moment that inspired him to become a foster parent.

Already entered into the foster care system, Melvin was searching for a place to call home when Blake and his wife, Mary, took him in. Beginning a fostering trend, Blake’s family grew from eight to fourteen, grafting in six high school football players to their home. Not long after, Blake realized the need for more foster families, taking a stand to help children find a “forever home.”

SEE A NEED, FILL A NEED

Beginning the nonprofit in 2014, The Keep is enabling the local church and the community to create a culture of families, equipping foster homes to answer the call of the orphan.

“We are the ‘bridge ministry’ that connects Child Welfare government to the local church, then to the community. We are in the business of reconciliation. We want to keep kids in the community, we want to make sure no kids age out without a forever family, and we also want to train the church how to have a sustainable ministry that is permanent,” Blake explained.

Directly connecting both worlds of church and state using GEO Radius Technology, The Keep’s newest addition, Care Portal, offers a way for a family’s need to be immediately met.

Although the brokenness of the foster system seems insurmountable, Blake met with former Texas Gov. Perry in an effort to mend the historical conflict of “separation of church and state,” and urged a plan of restoration through their newest project.

“We wanted to influence how the state viewed the church because it was very separate. I told Governor Perry when he was in office about ten years ago, I said to him, ‘I know where there are thousands of families.’ He said, ‘Where?’ I said, ‘They meet on Sunday.’ And from then on, we started with this,” Blake put simply.

“Through the Care Portal, the request comes directly from the caseworker, and this is not a CPS system, this is ours. So the request for needs comes from all over Texas, and into our database and out to the churches. Then the churches respond, and the caseworkers and the church get together. If approved by the families, they can meet and have direct interaction,” Blake added.

Through a simple email, the Care Portal allows caseworkers to make requests, alerting churches that can help, filling the family’s need.

“Maybe it’s a grandma that had babies brought to her and left there because her daughter got into drugs. But grandma doesn’t have a crib for safe sleep. A caseworker can send an email out to the churches we have engaged. Then whichever one says, ‘we can take care of that,’ the caseworker is able to pick up that bed and deliver it. That way, the child stays with grandma,” Blake explained an example.

There are about 17 churches in Ellis County taking the initiative to meet the necessities of families at risk. From covering electric bills to providing groceries, or buying a car for transportation, congregations are spreading the compassion and lending a hand to those hurting in their community.

Out of the 348,000 churches in the U.S., 400 churches in Texas have been activated to the Care Portal, extending into nine other states. Growing rapidly, Blake later disclosed that the project has only been operating for a year and a half and is seeing great results.

COMMUNITY, CHURCH, STATE

In light of the “broken system,” the State Policy Advocacy & Reform Center states that foster care was intended to be temporary, but many Texas children remain in care for years. More than 100,000 children across the country—especially older children and children of color — still wait for families.

“The Foster Care system in the state will tell you, ‘we are a broken system. We are desperate for someone to help.’ And I’ve heard that from state workers from the state,” articulated Martha Thomassen, Development Director of Pleasant Hills Children’s Home and partner of The Keep.

“Recently at the Governor’s Summit, the governor had us come down, all faith base partners from all over, to come to the capital for an event there. The reason why the system is in a terrible crisis - it’s a broken system, and they're looking for partners, and the obvious partner is the church,” Blake added.

Joining through The Keep and the Care Portal, Blake is thrilled about the three pillars putting the broken system behind and running ahead into a new partnership.

“The whole premise of the ministry is that Child Welfare is to one side, and we say that Child Welfare has conservatorship of the child, being the legal parent. In the middle, we say that the church has stewardship; God has called the church by Scripture to care for the orphans, the kids, the poor, that’s stewardship. On the other side, the community has ownership. So a boy in the community who 'ages out,' he is going to have to go back. So you have conservatorship, stewardship, and ownership. Together they make a partnership,” Blake stated.

In taking care of the system, all three aspects are vital for a child to find a forever family. According to the United States Census of 2015, Ellis County has a population of 163,632 citizens with 52,653 households. Out of that, 26.9 percent are children under the age of 18, which means the opportunity to help a child within the area is vast.

“We want people in this zip code to take care of families and kids in this zip code. When a child is removed, they’re removed from the family, their school, best friends, and even their teddy bear,” Blake said. “All of that is automatically gone, and then here you have a nine-year-old 60 miles away with their belongings in a trash bag, standing on the porch of a stranger, watching them sign papers and they say, ‘Here’s your new foster family.’ They expect that child not to be traumatized. They expect that child to be okay, not angry, or to go through all kinds of disorders. We want every community to work within their zip code so that no kid goes into the system without a forever family, a wraparound, or community.”

Educating the church and families on how to deal with trauma is more than labeling a child with a problematic behavior, it’s teaching them how to cope with those painful flashbacks.

THE PROBLEM CHILD

As stated by Adopt US Kids, trauma can affect children’s brains, bodies, behavior, and ways of thinking. Child traumatic stress occurs when children and adolescents are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope and interfere with daily life, and their ability to function and interact with others. The type of trauma experienced by children in foster care can vary from neglect to domestic violence to physical and sexual abuse.

Because of this, children are susceptible to unhealthy habits or emotions, which include deeply rooted behaviors of aggression, distrust, or rebellion. Such character flaws were commonly used as mechanisms of protection from past abuse or neglect.

However, even when a child acts out at their worst, Thomassen reminds parents that their child isn’t a “bad kid,” but has had bad things happen to them.

“There are no bad children, there are good children who’ve learned bad actions, but there are no bad children,” Thomassen said, recalling a story of a young boy who had experienced the trauma of the foster care system.

“He was five years of age when the state removed him and his siblings, who were older than him, from their birth parents and terminated their rights. They were then put into the system, and they were adopted. At five years old, he did not grasp what was happening, and so he was angry with these wonderful adopted people, and he thought, ‘you took away my mom and dad.’ And nothing they said, or did, convinced him. His siblings loved the new family, loved their new mom and dad and did great, and he never could get it out of his head, so he would terrorize them,” Thomassen paused.

“He is now a grown adult, and these are his words, ‘I was there to destroy them because they destroyed me.’ That was just his mindset. So we raised him and got him into a Visiting Resource Family out of a church when he had hit 18, because he had been to their house for Christmas, birthdays, they came and visited him at home – they adopted him. And now he’s out of college, he writes software and is a very successful young man,” said Thomassen with a smile.

Although some foster and adoption cases have redemptive outcomes, those who “age out” of the system are not as likely to share the same fate. In alignment with the 2013 statistics of the Child Welfare League of America, 85,922 children younger than 18 were arrested in Texas with some of them entered into juvenile detention centers or worse.

In a recent CNN report, the United States had 23,439 children in foster care turn 18 and "emancipated" or "aged out." In simple terms, most of them were put out into the world on their own without housing, financial assistance or emotional support.

Visiting a prison in light of research, Thomassen asked the warden how they determine the number of beds needed in the prison regardless of influx.

“He said, ‘We look at the number of kids that are aging out of foster care, and that’s how we estimate how many beds we’ll need.’ Most of them, if they haven’t had someone come along side them, do programs like this, give them good families, communities, and churches to help, they repeat what they know and what the troubled home was. Then their 18 and out in the streets, committing a crime that could be as simple as stealing food to eat. Our number one goal is to break the cycle of abuse, poverty, and neglect and to make families whole. We want to see young people grow into successful, productive citizens that you want to be your neighbor. If you could do that, imagine how that could change Ellis County,” Thomassen encouraged.

Though most kids struggle to get into college, more so than out of a jail cell, both Blake and Thomassen are building healthy connections for these young adults. From apprenticeships to seasonal living while attending college, students of all ages can rest assured support from both organizations is there.

“Like the kids in foster care, we have kids in college that when the dorm closes, where do you go? Who takes care of you in the summer, or when you’re sick? I went to mom and dad, but they don’t have that. We also have a program for that as well,” Thomassen stated.

REESTABLISHING THE HOME

A generation of orphans can only produce more orphans. That is, until a family shows them otherwise.

“For North Texas District, our goal is to go from prevention to permanency. What we’re hoping for Ellis County is children that come from the crisis will have healthy resources in our county and a wraparound from the community, lead by the church,” Blake explained.

“The second thing we hope for is that our community awareness is rising to the level that we take care of our kids and the agencies that open their doors to care for more children. The last thing is to give, to support us. If we want to minister to kids in a healthy way that’s not bureaucratic, we want the kids to be like any other kids, that is critical to our program and what we do,” he said, adding that The Keep purely runs off of donations and no government funding.

As for the trials, every family’s journey brings, Blake believes one thing is clear.

“The story is simple – its sin and then redemption. And the process between sin and redemption becomes a ministry, likes ours, that come to bring the healing process so that God can redeem it,” Blake finished with a grin.

To support or contact The Keep, visit keeporphans.org, (844) 686-5337 or @keeporphans. To connect or donate to Pleasant Hills Children’s Home, visit pleasanthillchildrenshome.org or (903)-389-2641.

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Chelsea Groomer, @ChelseaGroomer

(469) 517-1450