Good News | Nonprofit inspiring network of churches to serve families in crisis
By Erica Thompson, The Columbus Dispatch
The word hospitality often is associated with industry standards for luxurious hotels, restaurants and nightlife.
But the volunteers of the faith-based nonprofit, Safe Families for Children, embrace a much simpler definition: kindness to strangers.
They temporarily care for children whose parents experience homelessness, medical emergencies, domestic violence, drug addiction and other challenges. Last year, central Ohio participants opened their homes for a total of about 2,000 combined nights.
“It says in (the Bible) that God places the lonely in families,” said Phil Krause, director of the central Ohio branch of Safe Families. “These families are socially isolated. They’re experiencing a level of loneliness that has really caused disruption in their family that I think is unnecessary. To be able to engage with healthy community has really combated that loneliness.”
Based in Chicago and founded in 2003, Safe Families for Children galvanizes networks of churches to assist parents experiencing crises that prevent them from caring for their children.
Host families volunteer to take the kids — typically age 5 and younger — into their homes for short periods. The organization currently has more than 100 chapters across the United States, and partnerships with volunteers in Canada and the United Kingdom.
Because state welfare agencies do not get involved if children are not experiencing blatant abuse or neglect, Safe Families serves a supplemental role for children who might not qualify for foster care, but whose parents think they could use help.
Part of its mission is to keep children united with their biological parents or original caregivers.
“My wife and I jumped into foster care about five or six years ago,” said Krause, 39, of the Near East Side. He founded Safe Families for Children Central Ohio in 2017 with the help of Awaken Church in Victorian Village, where he is a staff member.
“(The foster care system) didn’t really lend itself to building great relationships with the biological parents.”
Currently, Safe Families for Children Central Ohio has a network of 12 participating churches — with two more preparing to join — and about 50 host families. It connects with families in need through referrals from hospitals, homeless and domestic violence shelters and other organizations.
As part of the Safe Families system, host families are supported by family coaches (similar to caseworkers) and volunteers who provide meals, transportation, babysitting services and other resources. Safe Families relies on financial support from its participating churches, individual donations and grants.
Ali Watson, a member of Hope Presbyterian Church in Upper Arlington, serves as both a family coach and host family for Safe Families. Last year, the 37-year-old Worthington resident took in a 9-month-old girl whose single father was unable to care for her for four months. (Watson declined to share further details of the father’s situation.)
Watson said she and her husband, Josh, 39, wanted to teach their three young children about compassion.
“Food pantries and drives are great, but the sacrifice that that takes can be quite minimal,” she said. “We wanted to see our kids really understand what it means to love someone in a way that might mean sacrifices in the physical space of our home or just in our schedules, (and) that they understand that loving someone is worth making those sacrifices.”
Though the father is now stable with a new job and has the child back, he has to wait for 50 days to receive assistance with day care costs from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Watson is helping with babysitting.
“We have developed a really close friendship,” Watson said. “We can help fill needs as they arrive, just as friends.”
In a promotional video for Safe Families, the father said that establishing a lifelong friendship with the Watsons has been his favorite part of the experience.
“Living with little to no support, you’re not likely to be very successful,” he said. “You need a community. … That’s one thing that I got from them.”
Watson said volunteering with Safe Families has shown her how fortunate she and her own family have been.
“We’ve just been saved from so much pain and suffering in our lives,” she said. “A lot of people that we’re working with have gone through so much hard stuff.”
According to Krause, Safe Families mainly serves single mothers. The organization’s impact on that demographic is apparent to Monica Flynn, founder and executive director of Mommies Matter, which provides services such as counseling, financial assistance and spiritual guidance.
“Their services complement our program beautifully,” Flynn said. “If I have a (pregnant) mother who has other children, and she has no support systems, no family, when she goes into the hospital to have the baby, there’s nobody there to watch the kids. So Safe Families has helped our moms have that other layer of support.”
Flynn said Safe Families volunteers also have taken in children while their mothers were completing school or receiving counseling.
People can inquire about volunteering with Safe Families though their churches if they belong to the network.
Both Krause and Watson said they are excited about the role the church is playing in helping to combat poverty.
“The main reason we’re doing this is because we think that this is what Jesus did,” Watson said. “We’ve seen a real gap in the church’s presence in this way, especially among those in poverty. And so it’s just super encouraging to see the church re-entering into these relationships. … This is what we’re supposed to be doing.”