Carol Lee, senior editor
In 2011, Simon Sinek published the New York Times Bestseller Start with Why. His premise is that the world’s more enduring organizations last because they have a clear and focused purpose.
While it’s true that our what and our how have evolved through the years, our why remains: we want to change the world through family.
Bethany began in 1944 when our founders, Marguerite Bonnema and Mary DeBoer, took in a baby girl who needed a home. They already had a vision to start a home for children who needed one, and saying yes to this child opened their hearts to more vulnerable children in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
They took in five more young children that year before partnering with Andrew VanderMeer to establish Bethany Christian Home as a nonprofit organization. In 1951, Bethany became licensed by the state of Michigan to facilitate adoption, placing 25 infants with Christian families that first year.
For many years, through Bethany’s early history, adoption was considered the primary way to give children a family.
Bethany’s mission focused on the belief that “every child deserves a loving family.” Included in our identity as a Christian organization is this conviction: if we believe families are where children are meant to grow up and be nurtured, our first effort should be to support a child’s family of origin.
What we do
This begins with how we serve expectant parents facing an unintended pregnancy. We’ve worked with expectant parents since 1951, and we continue improving the support we provide.
Expectant parents who are considering adoption often say, “I can’t afford to have this baby.” A decision this big, this life-changing, should never be determined by something so temporary.
Finances change. Circumstances change. Sometimes a little help at a specific time is all someone needs to get to a more stable place where they can parent.
We also strive to reduce an expectant mother’s stressors because we know reducing her stress and reducing the “fight or flight” cortisol in her system directly correlates to her child’s healthy development.
This understanding is why, in 2012, Bethany established the Life Impact Fund. We want to remove some of the stressors that expectant parents face when choosing life for their children, whether they decide to parent or make an adoption plan.
Safe Families for Children is another example of our commitment to keeping families together. Bethany partners with this national ministry through 31 chapters in 15 states.
In a crisis, many families have a church community, extended family, friends and neighbors, and local community connections who can help. That is a blessing.
Many families don’t have that for a variety of reasons, including isolation, poverty, a chaotic or dysfunctional family history, abusive relationships, or even their own difficult choices. When crisis hits for these families, their children can be at a heightened risk of neglect or abuse.
Safe Families provides host families for children while their parents work with a counselor to address their particular crisis or challenge. The result of this family-to-family connection is that kids often bypass the trauma of foster care, and host families often become a foundational part of a new support network, enveloping a once-struggling family with love and care.
When Kashonder found herself homeless and unable to provide for her children, Safe Families hosts stepped in to care for her kids while she finished her nursing degree.
There are times when it is necessary to create a new family through adoption. Adoptive families understand that all adoption begins with loss, and kids who have experienced abuse, neglect, or abandonment almost always have deep wounds. An adoptive family can be a vehicle for healing for those children.
We are committed to connecting families with supports that will help them build essential coping skills and parenting skills. We look for mentors who can equip and empower families to be more stable for children.
How we do it
Maybe “keeping families together” seems an unexpected perspective from an organization many have known as an “adoption agency.”
Isn’t Bethany pro-adoption, and wouldn’t Bethany advocate for it?
A child’s primary attachment is with their family of origin. Separating kids from their families breaks a primary bond, and our purpose is not to add to a child’s trauma by layering on more loss; so before we add additional wounds of separation from parents and siblings, we look to see if we can keep those children’s families intact.
Supporting families by walking with them through challenging times can also be a way to help them experience the grace and love of Christ.
We seek to wrap around families to help them cope and build resilience. A child can heal within a family that can be supported and strengthened; however, a child’s development does not wait for the grown-ups lives to change.
Since 1956, we’ve worked in foster care to provide stable homes for children because when children live in a prolonged state of crisis, it permanently alters how their brains develop. Our counselors and foster care specialists partner with mentors and connect parents with support groups, churches, and other long-term networks.
The goal is always to give children a safe, stable home environment with their family of origin whenever possible.
Read how Shaquita worked toward reunification after her three children were placed in foster care.
Where adoption fits
In our 76-year history, we have diversified our services such that “adoption agency” tells only part of our story.
Domestic infant adoption was a large part of Bethany’s growth in the 1980s. Since then, we have learned so much about the relationships within adoption—how they develop and change over time—and the value of maintaining openness and contact with biological families.
We are now able to translate that expertise within appropriate cultural contexts and introduce connection with biological families as a best practice in Ethiopia, Haiti, South Africa, and other countries where Bethany is facilitating adoption.
Our adoption work has also informed the way we’ve developed additional services, all with the goal of family-based care.
What we know about stress and trauma related to a child’s brain development informed our post-adoption programs such as ADOPTS (specialized trauma counseling for kids moving from foster care to adoption).
What we learned there informed our work with children adopted internationally. It informed our refugee work with children and families experiencing complex trauma. It continues to inform our international work with South Sudanese families and unaccompanied children living in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Venezuelans migrating to Colombia.
As our understanding of trauma has deepened, we have found new contexts to train, support, and equip families and staff to protect children and help them heal.
Who we are
While adoption is where Bethany started, it isn’t the why that drives us forward into our next 75 years.
Supporting the family as God’s design for children is our why.
Marguerite and Mary saw a need no one else was meeting, and they said, Let’s meet it. That’s still who we are today.
As Bethany’s president, Chris Palusky, articulates Bethany’s vision, he often describes Bethany “running to the hard places,” taking our years of child welfare experience and expertise to struggling families, wherever they are.
Bethany’s interconnected continuum of services is unique and critical. As we grow, we share what we learn more efficiently, all for the sake of children.
We are excited about Bethany’s future. Rooted in our past and clear about our why, we are moving into position to reach more children and families in the years ahead.
Too many children still need the stability, permanency, protection, and nurturing only a family can provide. We can’t allow them to wait any longer.