by Jeannie Whitlock
April 09, 2020
Sometimes when God calls, He uses a cell phone.
Leslie remembers the day God invited her into His promise to “set the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6). During a Bible study session, Leslie’s leader asked the group what God was asking them to do that they hadn’t done yet. “I knew immediately it was hosting a child in our home through Safe Families for Children,” Leslie said.
At that moment, Leslie’s cell phone rang. It was the local Safe Families coordinator, calling with an urgent hosting need.
For two years, Leslie had volunteered with Safe Families as a Family Coach, and she’d helped start a Safe Families ministry at her church. She and her husband, Steve, had considered hosting a child for some time but hadn’t yet committed.
God’s timing was impeccable; His call unambiguous. Leslie and Steve said yes, and a whole new Safe Families adventure began.
While many families have a church community, extended family, friends and neighbors, and local community connections that can help in hard times, many families have no one. When a crisis hits for these families, their children are at heightened risk of neglect or abuse.
Safe Families provides these families with a safety net called “All in for Just One.” Safe Families volunteers band together and commit to one family for one year. This strategic mix of volunteers includes Host Families, vetted babysitters, meal providers, and Family Coaches who mentor the parents. Children receive the care they need, and parents receive the support they need to build a more stable home environment.
Steve and Leslie began by hosting two young boys for two weeks. Over the next four years, they welcomed four more children into their home, including Khalil.
Khalil was 10, the oldest child Leslie and Steve had hosted. Before they said yes, they had questions. How would family dynamics shift for their 8-year-old son, Alec, to have an older boy staying with their family? Plus, with their two daughters starting a new high school, it felt like a chaotic time to bring another child into their home.
But God had great things in store for everyone involved. Khalil and Alec became fast friends, like brothers. The whole family got to know Khalil’s mom, Cassie; his twin sisters; and the churches that were supporting them. Cassie and her children began to experience the dynamic power of God’s people pulling together on their behalf.
The two families became friends and joined each other for holidays and baseball games. They partnered with teachers and administrators to overcome challenges Khalil was having at school. And when Cassie’s housing became vulnerable, Steve contacted friends who owned a rental property. Cassie was able to move her family into a safe, stable home.
“Once you live with us, you’re part of our family forever,” Leslie said. Hostings are brief, but the impact lasts.
Julie Paine, Safe Families’ national director, calls this long-term connection the “Safe Families secret sauce.” As a relational safety net coalesces around a family, chains of poverty, addiction, or isolation begin to crumble. Safe Families facilitates healthy relationships, sometimes the first that a participant has experienced. One mom shared, “No one ever showed me what good parenting looked like,” until she met her Family Coach.
Coaches and Hosts are carefully screened and receive comprehensive training to assure children are protected and volunteers are equipped. Hosts can be married or single, renters or homeowners, young or old. Ultimately, they are people who have experienced God’s wide refuge and enjoy inviting others into it.
Today, Cassie and her kids are thriving. She stays in touch with Leslie and her family, who still reaps the rewards of saying yes—yes to a less predictable life, to offering their gifts, to the God Who sets the lonely in families and calls us to join Him.
Cassie’s success was bolstered by the network of Safe Families Churches that mobilized around her. Safe Families is most effective when a local church owns the ministry, and that usually happens when a passionate volunteer tells the Safe Families story in church.
Volunteers engage churches by sharing their experience, recruiting a pastor’s involvement, connecting Safe Families with a church’s mission, or connecting their church congregation with like-minded churches.
Vocal champion Mary Morgan, executive pastor at Good News Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, heard a Safe Families presentation at just the right time and became a champion for the ministry. “Our board was actively in dialogue about how to help area families in poverty,” she said. “Safe Families took what our congregation was already doing to the next level.”
Showing a video or sharing a Safe Families testimonial like the one Mary heard is a great way for volunteers to start a conversation.
When a church is already asking, “How can we show Christ’s love in our community?” they are primed to partner with Safe Families. Do the people deeply care about their neighbors, coworkers, and those in poverty? Does the church budget extend beyond salaries and facilities? These are signs of a missions-minded congregation whose goals align with Safe Families.
Good News is one of 10 churches in the Sioux Falls area working together to assist vulnerable children and their families. When churches work together, their impact exponentially increases.
Kentwood Community Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is another example. It hosts regular support meetings for Safe Families volunteers, including volunteers from other area churches. Volunteers pray for each other, provide practical support, and return refreshed to their respective Safe Families ministries.
Communities grow closer to God and each other as they witness His answers to prayer.
One member of a Safe Families church hosted Angela’s* two young children while she recovered from delivering her third. A second church member, Angela’s Family Coach, discovered she needed a car. A third church member knew an autobody shop owner who happened to have a car available for free. The whole congregation bonded as they partnered to provide for Angela and her kids.
Safe Families Churches hear testimonies like these all the time. More than 5,000 congregations—in 36 states and four countries—have answered God’s call to care for families in crisis and have been transformed as a result. *A pseudonym
Volunteers and churches mobilizing around families is just part of the Safe Families story. This ministry has relied on policy advocates to mobilize at the state level as well.
Two years ago, Safe Families for Children could not operate in Arkansas. While the Safe Families movement was built on best practices and had achieved success, it’s a volunteer ministry of local churches, not a government program with laws that set consistent standards from state to state. For Safe Families to open an Arkansas chapter, the state required laws.
A group of Safe Families staff and volunteers went into advocacy mode, making appointments with local elected officials. “That first meeting was primarily an introduction,” said Nate Bult, Bethany’s vice president of public and government affairs. “We gave policymakers an overview on how Safe Families could help the state as well as families in need.”
The advocacy team eventually made their ask: a change in the law so Safe Families chapters could legally operate in Arkansas. In Little Rock, since 2017, more than 56 volunteers have served through Bethany, helping more than a hundred families. Because of this ministry, more than 250 children had a safe place to stay and never entered foster care.
Similar laws have passed in 17 states. “Because Safe Families has been so successful, it’s grown into more than a ministry,” Nate said. “With its success has come more attention and scrutiny.”
Perhaps you are trying to bring change to your community and need the help of your elected representative. Volunteer advocates for Safe Families follow these steps to set up and run an effective policy meeting:
1. Know the need
Identify the specific need your local official could help you meet. For example, is your local Safe Families chapter looking for city funding? Does it need access to a state database to screen volunteers? Policy language, funding, and access to resources are common issues a government official can help you address.
2. Know your official
Research who runs the child welfare system in your area—it may be the governor’s office, the state department of health and human services, or child protective services. Learn who key contacts are in departments like these and how best to communicate with them.
3. Assemble your dream team
Safe Families changes so many lives for the better. Invite these stakeholders to join your meeting. Ideally, your advocacy team will include someone who has received Safe Families assistance; a Safe Families employee; and a Host, Family Coach, or other Safe Families volunteer.
4. Share facts and faces
Approach your local official with a balance of statistics and stories. Policymakers should know that Safe Families for Children is a research-based organization, that the rate of family reunification is 95%, and that parents receive coaching and support so their family can emerge from the crisis stronger than before. Officials should also hear a specific family’s story.
5. Make the ask
Never leave a meeting without making an ask, and know what you’re asking for before you go into the meeting. You might invite an official to meet with Safe Families staff and volunteers, request funding, or give input on a particular law. Make a clear, deliverable request.
6. Follow up
A common mistake volunteer advocates make is failing to follow up after a meeting. A few days after your meeting, email everyone you met to thank them for their time. Recap the content of your conversation and repeat your ask. If you do receive what you asked for, follow up again to share positive results, such as, Because of your partnership, 60 children were kept safe and reunited with their families. Continue to foster the relationships you’ve built.
Arkansas is one of many advocacy success stories. Through Safe Families for Children, elected officials see how people caring for one another can transform their city.
Safe Families’ mission requires that people and churches operate in tandem. Some can open their homes in hospitality, some can open their churches in partnership, and some can open their mouths in advocacy. No matter how people are involved, parents and children are best served when we mobilize in concert.
God is calling His people—His Church—to care for children and families. Let’s answer His call together.