When very different organizations care about the same things, important and effective collaborations can take place. That is evident with the collaboration between Washoe County Social Services and the local faith community through the One Church One Child of Nevada program.
When seeking effective ways to reach out to individuals and families in the community who care about children and families in need, Washoe County Social Services knew it needed a bridge into the faith community. In 2004 the building of that bridge began with help from the National Network of Adoption Advocacy Programs (NNAAP), a national nonprofit offering best practices using the One Church One Child model of adoptive home recruitment.
A Different Approach
One Church One Child began in 1980 in Illinois with a focus of finding one family in each African American church to adopt an African American foster child. This program became the standard for faith-based recruitment and a grassroots program of the faith community. Washoe County sought and was granted monies from the National Network of Adoption Advocacy programs to develop a One Church One Child program in the community focused on finding foster and adoptive families for children from diverse cultural backgrounds. Not only was the focus on children of diverse cultures a new mission of One Church One Child, but having the program started by a government entity was equally new. The inevitable discussions and perceptions about the church-state relationship surfaced both before and after Washoe County Social Services and NNAAP began to work together. NNAAP provided valuable perspective and technical assistance to assist Washoe County in addressing and removing barriers, even those created by attitudes rather than actual fact. They believed what the program wanted to accomplish could be done and inspired the partnership to continue its efforts.
The hope for success of this challenging endeavor came from the belief that, like Washoe County Social Services, the faith community wanted to help others. Social Services believed that if people were given the opportunity to learn about foster children’s needs through their faith community—the one place where people make "heart decisions"—it could open the door for an increase in foster and adoptive homes where the churches serve as support for those families.
Leadership Is the Key
Once the funding from the NNAAP was secured, the next step was to find the right kind of faith leader to help build the bridge into the faith community. For this leader to be effective, he or she had to have strong connections with the faith community. He or she had to be a person of respect who could connect Washoe County and the One Church One Child of Nevada program to the faith community in such a way that the program was accepted and the mission of providing for foster children was embraced. Initial attempts to find that person proved to be difficult. However, the right leader came along in the form of Pastor Otto Kelly of Central City Church. Pastor Kelly possessed leadership qualities that met and even exceeded what the county needed to complete the bridge into the faith community. Pastor Kelly has a background as a juvenile probation officer for Washoe County as well as a strong reputation in the community both as a pastor and community leader focusing on youth advocacy.
Under Pastor Kelly’s guidance, the One Church One Child of Nevada program as it was originally developed was evaluated. Pastor Kelly explained to Washoe County Social Services that the flaw of the program as it existed was that it gave people only one option to serve foster children: become a foster parent with the possibility of adoption. He told Social Services that people in the faith community want to serve children, especially foster children, but many may not be in a position to become a foster parent. In time, many of those people who enter the program to serve in a way other than foster parenting may become a licensed foster parent when it is the appropriate time for their family.
While Pastor Kelly went about the business of connecting with pastors and churches to speak with them about the One Church One Child of Nevada program, Washoe County Social Services staff worked on developing other opportunities for people to serve foster children. Additional collaborations were forged with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. There are many foster children on waiting lists for a mentor through this valuable program, which also provides the faith community with opportunities to mentor a foster child or even a child not in foster care. An even more critical collaboration has been One Church One Child of Nevada providing the opportunity for people to serve through assisting with the Children’s Cabinet Independent Living program. This program serves young people aged 17 to 21 who have aged out of foster care. There are a myriad of ways for people to help with this program, from something as simple as donating a gift card so a young mother may purchase needed items for her child to as involved as teaching a skills class to the young people in the program.
Fruits of the Labor
The One Church One Child of Nevada program continues to grow and evolve. There are currently fourteen churches formally committed to the program. The churches are opening their doors for Washoe County Social Services staff to speak to their members about foster children and their needs. A growing number of families are becoming licensed as foster families, some to care for children in their homes full time, others to provide much needed respite care for foster families so they can have restful breaks while their foster children are cared for by well-trained people. Two significant events have been hosted by One Church One Child of Nevada to reach out to the diverse cultures of the area. Learn to Affirm in August 2008, an event celebrating what is good about the youth in the area, was co-hosted by One Church One Child of Nevada, Washoe County Social Services, and Central City Church. A primarily Latino crowd of more than one thousand people joined in the celebration and learned about the ways to help foster children in our community. In February 2009, One Church One Child of Nevada and Washoe County Social Services hosted Celebrationfest 2009. This event joined worship teams of ten churches to share their talents while attendees learned of the ways to help foster children in Washoe County. More than 235 people attended Celebrationfest, and Social Services has seen an increase in people coming into foster care as a result of their attendance.
The full impact of the One Church One Child of Nevada collaboration has yet to be seen, though it is apparent the program has the strength and longevity to help foster children on a long-term basis. It is proof that a shared cause can create strong bridges between very different groups.
Binnie McLemore-Lopez is a Foster Care Support Supervisor with the Social Services Department in Washoe County, Nevada. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or (775) 337-4448.