Saint Francis Celebrates and Honors Families

About 220 foster and kinship families from across the state traveled to Hutchinson Saturday to spend a free family day at the Kansas State Fair and to be honored for the work they do on behalf of children.

Inaugurated six years ago, Saint Francis’ annual Resource Parent Appreciation Day gives families a day at the Fair, so they can relax and have fun without worrying about the cost. Saint Francis gives foster and kinship parents a free t-shirt, pays for their family’s admission and provides a free BBQ meal catered by Hog Wild. Saturday, we fed 1,100 people.

Why do we do this? Because being a foster or kinship parent is hard work. Rewarding, but challenging.

That’s why nearly 100 Saint Francis staff volunteer every year to help ensure the event’s success. Our social workers and support staff witness firsthand the sacrifice and love resource parents bring foster parenting.

They see lives changed all the time.

Every day, foster parents shuttle children to doctor appointments, parental visitations, and school events. Every day, foster parents make time to listen, console, nurture, and teach a child. Every day, foster parents provide safe, secure spaces so children can heal, grow, and find hope again.

We want foster and kinship parents to know that their hard work, dedication, and commitment to children don’t go unnoticed. They deserve to be celebrated.

That’s why we do it.

How about you? Want to be a foster parent? Go here to learn more.

Next year, let us celebrate you.

Stewardship, a Way of Life

They began teaching their children at an early age, with a 50-cent weekly allowance paid in nickels. One nickel always went to the church, the rest to spend as they pleased. As each child grew older, the allowance – and the tithe – increased. Their hope was that their children would carry the spirit of stewardship into adulthood.

Ann Elizabeth Bishop has lived by that spirit for most of her life. She became involved with The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS) while serving as the administrative assistant at St. James Episcopal Church in Wichita. St. James is also where she met Glenna Kleinkauf who, like Ann Elizabeth, was taking a four-year Education for Ministry course offered through Sewanee Theological Seminary. They’ve been together 23 years. They received a blessing of their union in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland 16 years ago and legally married two years ago in Kansas. They also raised five kids, the youngest of whom, Charlotte, grew up attending TENS conferences with Ann Elizabeth and Glenna.

It was through TENS that the couple met John Hoskins, senior philanthropic advisor for Saint Francis Community Services. John, in turn, introduced them to Saint Francis, and Ann Elizabeth and Glenna have been ardent supporters and treasured friends of the ministry ever since.

“We support Saint Francis because of what they do and how they do it,” said Ann Elizabeth. “For us, they exemplify everything scripture teaches about stewardship. Many people think it’s just about giving away money, but it’s more than that. Stewardship is about using your talents and gifts and about being grateful for the good things in your life. I know that for many of these children, Saint Francis is the best thing that’s happened to them. Saint Francis helps them discover and make the most of their talents and gifts. That’s what makes this ministry so unique; it nurtures the whole person.”

That notion lies at the heart of their relationship with Saint Francis.

“They try to make every child feel important, and they treat their donors the same way,” said Ann Elizabeth. “They are conscientious and personal, and they work hard to keep us informed about where our money goes. That’s important because we work hard for our money and don’t like the thought of anyone being careless with it.”

In other words, good stewardship goes both ways. As Ann Elizabeth and Glenna like to say, “Stewardship is everything you do, with everything you have, all the time.”

That motto guides them in their giving, inspiring them to provide support year after year and to remember Saint Francis in their estate planning.

“Who do you want to determine where your possessions go after you’ve left the world?” asked Glenna, “You or the state? We don’t have a lot, but we figure every little bit helps. Besides, we’re all just caretakers of what we own anyway. If we can help an organization like Saint Francis grow and continue its work, then why not?

“We’re not going to be around forever, and one day, these kids will be running the world. We need to teach them now how to love and how to care so they can take their place in the world and help make it better. Hopefully, they’ll remember what Saint Francis did for them.”

Charlotte remembers. As a young girl, she regularly contributed part of her allowance to Saint Francis’ equestrian program at Salina West. Now 29 and preparing to marry, she still gives. She still carries the spirit of stewardship instilled by her parents – and the lives of other children have been made better because of it.

“The bottom line? It’s the kids,” said Glenna. “That’s the piece that does it for me, that’s why we give. We do it for the kids. That’s the beauty of stewardship. You can keep changing the world long after you’re gone.”

 

KYAC Conference Teaches There’s “No Place Like Home … Make Yours”

Nearly 100 young people gathered in Lindsborg, Kansas, a few days ago for the Kansas Youth Advisory Council’s (KYAC) annual Summer Youth Conference, No Place Like Home … Make Yours. Hosted this year at Bethany College, the conference is for current youth in foster care, as well as those who have “aged out” and are receiving Independent Living services.

An initiative of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, KYAC empowers youth to advise and offer recommendations to state officials about the child welfare system, while also teaching teens the skills they’ll need to function as self-sufficient, capable adults.

Comprised of four Regional Youth Councils (RYAC) – two for Saint Francis youth in the West and Wichita regions and two for youth in eastern Kansas served by the state’s other private contractor, KVC – KYAC empowers young people ages 15-20 by valuing their voice and by giving them the tools they need to succeed as adults and as leaders. More than half of this year’s conference attendees were youth served by Saint Francis.

Because RYAC plays such an important role in skill building, Saint Francis’ Independent Living program provides oversight and guidance for the monthly meetings. Independent Living Program Manager Jennifer Walters, works with her staff to plan topics and organize monthly meetings for each RYAC. Saint Francis also plays a large role in helping organize the annual KYAC conference. Each year KYAC youth and staff from across the state gather together the day before the summer conference to begin preparing for the next day’s events.

Keynote speaker Jared Estes helps present certificates during the recognition portion of the conference.

This year’s conference featured two keynote motivational speakers, Jared Estes and KJ-52. Estes and his late wife were hit by a drunk driver which fatally injured his wife and left him with severe burns to nearly 50 percent of his body. Estes shared how he resilience and determination helped him deal with the grief of losing his wife and his yearlong struggle to recover from his injuries.

KJ-52 is a singer/rapper who uses song to spread inspirational messages of love and respect to young people. His presentation included a mini-concert that thrilled the adults as well as the kids.

Other activities included workshops on basic sewing, independent living benefits after custody, military service opportunities, insurance and health coverage, and college readiness. Youth were able to attend workshops that they felt would best suit their interests. High school and college graduates were also recognized.

“Overall, the 2018 KYAC Summer Youth Conference was a huge success; it was not only informative but fun for everyone who attended,” said Walters. “Although no youth is required to go, all are encouraged to participate. With such an astonishing turnout, it’s easy to see it’s a popular event.”

You can learn more about our Independent Living program here.

The transition into adulthood can be especially difficult for young people without caring adults to help them navigate unfamiliar waters into adulthood.

To learn how you can support kids making this transition, please visit The Saint Francis Foundation here.

Every boy gets a fresh start at the McHenry house

Saint Francis provides foster care services in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Texas. Here’s a story about Otis and Sheryl McHenry, two of our excellent Oklahoma foster parents.

The adolescent boy looked at Otis McHenry like he was nuts. “What do you mean?” he replied.

“I said, ‘Are you a square, a triangle, or a circle?’” repeated Otis. “That’s your life right now; you don’t know what you are. But I’m here to help. If you let me in a bit, I can do that. Believe me, I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to help you.”

The boy did eventually “let him in,” and today he’s one of more than 30 former foster youth who still keep in touch with Otis and his wife Sheryl. For more than 12 years, the Haskell, Oklahoma, couple have provided love and guidance to youth that have experienced emotional and physical trauma. Because of trauma, some children in  foster care struggle to cope with often severe behavioral issues that require the skills of specially trained and specially motivated foster parents.

“Kids are kids to me, so if one needs help, I’m going to do it,” said Sheryl. “I love a challenge.”

Sheryl and Otis have been therapeutic foster parents for so long, they feel they’ve pretty much seen it all. Otis says they’ve always had the confidence they need to deal with kids, particularly troubled ones. Even so, they’ve come a long way since the day they met their first placement more than a decade ago.

“All three of us were nervous,” she said. “When he came in the house, I showed him his room and asked him if he needed help putting away his things. He just said quietly, ‘No, I’ve got it.” Finally, I just said, ‘Look, I know you’re nervous, you don’t know us. But we don’t know you either. We’re all in the same boat, so we might as well make this fun and enjoy ourselves. Put down your stuff and let’s go get some ice cream.’ He turned around, looked at me and said, ‘Great, let’s go!’”

That story makes them both laugh. As foster parents, they rely on laughter, because they might otherwise cry. They’ve heard some horrible stories over the years, stories about trauma. Yet, they refuse to let those stories define a child.

“When they show up here, we tell them, ‘your past stays in your past,’” said Otis. ‘We’re just going to put it in a sack and toss it outside.’”

They couple also depends heavily on structure. They say it’s vital. Children in foster care need to feel they are treated fairly, that every child in the home is equal. That means, they must follow rules.

“Some of them object, they get angry,” said Otis. “Then they’ll start to accept it because they like the structure. Many of them have never had it before. But once you give that structure, it shows you care about them, and that’s when you start gaining their trust and their love.”

Of the 32 young men Otis and Sheryl have fostered, all have been teenagers, but one. They expected a 13-year-old when Braxton showed up at their door, but later learned he was only 10. The young boy feared they’d send him back, but Sheryl simply said, “No, you can stay. You’re younger than what I’ve dealt with before, but evidently you’re supposed to be here.” They adopted Braxton, now 12, last August.

That’s how Otis and Sheryl operate, though. They see a child in need and they help, no questions asked. Tough, determined, and fair, they don’t care what trouble that child has experienced or even caused in the past. It’s the past, and everyone gets a fresh start at the McHenry house.

“We’ve fostered 32 kids, and nearly all went on to college, the military, or work,” said Sheryl. “We’ve had successes and disappointments, but lots of great stories. That’s the way it goes. You do the best you can while you’ve got them, so when they get grown they can go out on their own.

“Like I said, I love a challenge. We’re not down here on Earth just for ourselves; it’s not about us. I believe this is my calling in life, because even though I can’t change what a kid has been through, I can still be here for him. I’ll help and support him, and together we’ll do our best.”

 

KidzKamp wraps up another great weekend

Nearly 70 kids had a blast last weekend during three fun-filled days at the 2018 KidzKamp in Salina, Kansas. Once again, Saint Francis staff and volunteers hosted children from all over the state at the Webster Conference Center, bringing smiles to the faces of children in need of a few days of carefree summer fun.

Each year, KidzKamp gives children in foster care a chance to cast off their concerns and to forget – if only briefly – the stress, frustration, and uncertainty they deal with daily.

For many, KidzKamp is the best time of year.

Boys and girls ages 8-12 can be themselves, learn and play carefree, and make new friends – friends who understand their situation better than anyone else can.

Many also look forward to seeing brothers and sisters who are living with other foster families. Although Saint Francis tries hard to place siblings within the same family, it’s not always possible to keep them together. For such siblings, KidzKamp offers a chance to reunite with a brother or sister.

It wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of people like Todd Hadnot and the dozens of Saint Francis employees and community members who volunteer their time to make it happen.

It’s hard work, but deeply rewarding. That must be why so many offer their time and resources every year to bring a few days of joy into a child’s life.

To learn how you can support KidzKamp, either financially or as a volunteer, visit The Saint Francis Foundation here.

 

World Refugee Day celebrates courage and resilience

Saint Francis Migration Ministries (SFMM) hosted a celebration yesterday in Wichita to commemorate World Refugee Day, a day set aside each year to honor the courage, sacrifice, and resilience of refugees around the world.

It was a festive event, with booths, food, music, crafts, booths, and games for the kids. Several churches, along with many of our community partners and friends, also participated. It was a wonderful celebration of friendship and community that highlighted and honored our shared humanity.

Here are a few facts about refugees, courtesy Global Giving:

  • Of the 65 million persons forcibly displaced around the world, about 21 million are refugees.
  • Each day, about 42,500 people flee their homes to seek protection within the borders of their own country or other countries.
  • Nearly 90 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries.
  • Of the 21 million refugees worldwide, more than half are children.

Saint Francis Migration Ministries helps those fleeing violence or persecution in their home countries find safety and security in the United States. As an affiliate of Episcopal Migration Ministries, we help asylum-seekers resettle and build new lives in Wichita, Kansas.

SFMM provides essential support to refugees approved through the U.S. Department of State’s Resettlement Program. Most clients resettled in Wichita come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, and Burma. Many have lived for years in refugee camps abroad while waiting for approval of their eligibility status by the Departments of State and Homeland Security.

Our work begins while our clients are still overseas as we plan for their arrival and mobilize services and resources necessary for successful resettlement. Our face-to-face work starts when we greet clients at the airport and welcome them to their new home. Then, with help from our network of community volunteers and partners, we provide support with housing, food, clothing, furnishing, and health screenings.

You can learn more here.

Want to help? There are lots of ways to volunteer:

  • Mentor a family
  • Set up an apartment for new arrivals
  • Organize special events
  • Help in the office.
  • Serve on the Welcome Team
  • Serve as an English tutor

Churches, individuals, and civic groups can also help by contributing gifts of household items, hygiene kits, and other necessities.

You can also give financially. Visit The Saint Francis Foundation to learn how.

Saint Francis at The Mount

Saint Francis recently announced an exciting new partnership with the Congregation of St. Joseph. Here are the details in case you missed it.

Saint Francis Community Services has leased the former convent of the Roman Catholic Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Wichita and is readying the 68,000-square-foot building to accommodate an array of early childhood development, independent living, health care, and life skills programs for children in foster care, their families, and newly resettled refugees.

The building and operations will be known as Saint Francis at The Mount, and will include community partnerships with Early Head Start and Head Start, among others.

Nearly 40 Sisters of St. Joseph have moved into a recently built 57,000-square-foot center at the south end of the property. The Sisters, many of whom are retired teachers, administrators and nurses, will be active volunteers and mentors in Saint Francis’ programs, especially those involving infants and children. Additionally, youth in independent living at The Mount may have the opportunity for employment with the Congregation.

“We are both humbled and blessed to have this opportunity at The Mount to help us further meet the needs of vulnerable children and families in Wichita,” said The Very Reverend Robert N. Smith, Dean and CEO of Saint Francis Community Services. “Through service to others, the spiritual missions of Saint Francis and the Sisters of St. Joseph are intertwined. Both organizations are advocates for systemic changes and tangible measures that improve lives and strengthen family bonds. To enhance the welfare of children and families, there could not be a more perfect union.”

Sr. Marguerite O’Brien CSJ, from the Congregation’s Leadership Team, agrees: “We are excited about welcoming Saint Francis Community Services and those that they serve to our campus. As two organizations committed to serving vulnerable populations and the emerging needs of our world, we see this as a wonderful time of possibilities.”

Saint Francis has already begun Phase I of its transition into The Mount and will continue in three phases to be completed by 2021. Existing spaces are being repurposed for offices, training areas, an onsite daycare, and independent living quarters. In Phase II, space will be dedicated to behavioral health programs, so Saint Francis’ clients may have access to these services all under one roof.

In all, about 50 new staff members will be hired by Saint Francis as programming expands at The Mount. Specific programs include:

PHASE I (now underway)

  • Independent Living for teens and young adults who are about to age out of foster care custody. Saint Francis will provide housing for 20 youth ages 16 and older, and assist them with obtaining a high school diploma or GED, job training, life skills training, and parenting classes.
  • Early Head Start and Head Start will sublease space from Saint Francis at The Mount. Early Head Start will offer services for 15 newborn to 3-year-olds and Head Start will provide services for 20 3- to 5-year-olds, including children in foster care served by Saint Francis.
  • Saint Francis Migration Ministries, which assists in the local resettlement of refugees approved through the U.S. Department of State’s Resettlement Program. More than 80 refugees were resettled in Wichita last year, largely from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and Burma. Saint Francis Migration Ministries helps refugees with housing, food, clothing, furnishings, language skills, access to medical care, and job readiness training during their first 90 days in the community. 
  • Saint Francis Community Services’ administrative offices for the Wichita area. Administrative and training facilities from Saint Francis’ 4415 E. Harry office in Wichita have moved to The Mount, freeing up space in the East Harry location to provide additional client services.

 PHASE II

  • Behavioral Healthcare Program. Already licensed for the provision of substance use programs at its facilities in Salina and Kansas City, Saint Francis will seek an additional license for a Wichita program offering outpatient services at The Mount. A licensed psychologist will be hired, as well. Plans also call for the eventual offering of telemedicine services.

 PHASE III

  • Independent Living for teens and young adults who have already aged out of foster care custody. This is a desperately needed service, as more than 200 young people who were formerly in foster care are currently homeless in Wichita. Saint Francis is currently working with United Way of the Plains, Wichita Children’s Home and other non-profits to obtain a HUD grant in support of this program.

“We are on the cusp of building one of the most comprehensive community partnerships in the country, all with the focus on children and families,” Fr. Smith said. “We could not do this without the generous support of the Sisters of the Congregation of St. Joseph, and we sincerely hope the five-year lease we have begun turns into an ongoing commitment for years to come. We are all dedicated to making The Mount a community success story, as well as a national model that demonstrates how shared resources and missions can make a remarkable difference in a community.”

‘Our hope is always to help those who need it most’

This spring, at Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Kansas, Debra McKenzie gathered a small group of students around her to discuss the health risks of cigarette and marijuana smoke on their lungs. One 18-year-old student moved in close to McKenzie and whispered that he had already quit smoking marijuana because he’s on probation. When she asked why he started using it in the first place, he said he had been depressed ever since his cousin was shot and killed. He just wanted the pain to go away.
 We run into that a lot,” says McKenzie. “Many of these kids start these behaviors to block out some of the stuff that has happened to them.”
Saint Francis mental health therapist Godswill Chuka, left, visits with a student during a recent Youth Health Day at Schlagle High School.

 

McKenzie, Saint Francis clinical director for community-based services, sensed why the student had confided in her. He needed help.That’s why she likes to use outreach events to connect with kids who need help learning to cope with depression, overcome addiction, or deal with behavioral issues. A community outreach project of Saint Francis Community Services, Youth Health Day provides health and dental screenings to students at all 13 middle and high schools in Kansas City, Kansas. Working in partnership with the school district and with the nursing programs at Kansas City Kansas Community College and Metropolitan Community College, McKenzie and her staff focus on prevention by identifying potential health problems before they grow more serious. That includes mental health issues.

“I told him that in our ADAPT and mental health programs, we work with students just like him to find new ways to deal with depression and pain,” she said. “I told him I was sure we could help him and asked if he’d like to give us a try. Without hesitation, he said, ‘Yes,’ and gave me his phone number.”

They’re just two of the programs Saint Francis provides in Kansas City, but ADAPT and mental health treatment are essential pieces of the Episcopal nonprofit’s array of child and family services. ADAPT (Adolescent/Adult Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment) provides multi-level outpatient alcohol and drug treatment within a therapeutic setting for persons struggling with substance abuse. Most of Saint Francis’ adolescent clients have been court-ordered to receive treatment, which means they often lack motivation to participate. So, to ensure they show up to get the help they need, Saint Francis even provides transportation to counseling sessions.

“As part of our mental health services, we also offer psychological assessments” said McKenzie. “Through our collaboration with the University of Kansas School of Medicine, we can provide psychiatric and medication evaluations. Our program fills a gap because Wyandotte County has a shortage of psychiatrists who serve indigent and low-income populations. Often the only other place where clients on Medicaid can receive services is through the Community Mental Health Center, which has long waiting lists. We can shorten the wait period for clients who need help.”

Saint Francis currently provides substance and mental health treatment for about 75 persons, most of whom are between the ages of 12 and 19. But clients don’t have to be youngsters to receive help. Nor, must they be low-income or referred by the courts. Anyone with an assessment indicating they need treatment can self-refer and get help.

Yet, most of Saint Francis’ work in Kansas City centers on struggling and at-risk young people. The ministry also offers the HEART (Healthy Empowering Adolescent Relationship Training) program, which helps young people develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship and decision-making skills. And, as in the rest of Kansas, Saint Francis provides foster care in Kansas City, which includes an anger management program for teens dealing with trauma.

Service to children and families is built into the DNA of Saint Francis Community Services, and its story of ministry is something The Very Rev. Chas Marks enjoys sharing with both his diocese and the rest of the Church. He’s a busy man. Priest In Charge of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church and Dean of the Northwest-Metro Deanery, Marks also serves as Saint Francis’ Senior Advisor for Community and Church Relations.

“Saint Francis is providing life-affirming services to an underserved population in the Kansas City Metro,” said Marks. “I get to share the story of the good work Saint Francis is doing in Kansas City and in other parts of the world with our local community and churches. There are so many opportunities for individuals and parishes to partner with Saint Francis to provide healing to children and families in Kansas City and beyond.”

When Marks isn’t pastoring, he’s talking about Saint Francis in pulpits and at coffee klatches throughout The Diocese of West Missouri. He hopes to meet friends and partners willing to join Saint Francis in its ministry of service to those most in need — the overlooked, the marginalized, the powerless. It’s a mission Saint Francis shares with the Church, and it’s a mission of hope.

Dozens of young people and adults regularly pass through the office doors of Saint Francis to receive therapeutic treatment for substance use or other behavioral issues. Some days, the clients include parents attending a support group because McKenzie and her colleagues always try to include the family in a client’s treatment. That’s because Saint Francis believes strong families produce healthy and happy children.

“Our hope,” said McKenzie, “is always to help those who need it most, especially those who lack the resources, the knowledge, the skills, or the support to help themselves. That’s why we’re here.”

To learn more or to arrange a visit to your church, visit The Saint Francis Foundation here.

This story was originally written for “Spirit”, a publication of the Diocese of West Missouri. Go here to access the “Spirit” homepage and read more articles related to the work of the Episcopal Church in West Missouri.

Saint Francis Migration Ministries will celebrate World Refugee Day, and you’re invited

In honor of World Refugee Day 2018, Saint Francis Migration Ministries, Saint Francis Community Services’ Wichita-based Refugee Resettlement program, will host a free celebration featuring live music and dancing, food, crafts, family-friendly activities, children’s soccer games and more on Wednesday, June 20, from 4 – 8 p.m.  at Saint Christopher’s Episcopal Church, 2211 S. Bluff St.

“On World Refugee Day – designated by the United Nations to be held every year on June 20 – we honor the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees and celebrate those who have become our friends and neighbors here in Wichita,” said Angela Smith, Corporate Director of Mission Engagement for Saint Francis. “For decades, refugees from all over the world have been embraced by Wichitans, and our community has become stronger and more culturally enriched because of it.”

More than 20 area churches, arts groups, and other non-profits will host booths offering a variety of crafts, games and activities for all ages. In case of inclement weather, the celebration will continue inside the church.

Popcorn, snow cones and other snacks will be available for free. Food trucks will offer food for purchase from The Kamayan Truck, Noble House Hawaiian Foods, and Drury Ln. Bakery.

A partial list of activities includes:

  • Traditional African dances performed by area high school students
  • Live music performances
  • Free craft projects for children
  • Children’s soccer games
  • Hand-made craft items for sale

In addition to Saint Francis-Migration Ministries, a partial list of those hosting activities or booths include:

  • MarkArts
  • The Treehouse
  • Kansas Children’s Service League
  • Immigrant Family Support Network
  • Bethany Lutheran Church
  • Pine Valley Christian Church
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Saint Francis Migration Ministries, through its affiliation with Episcopal Migration Ministries and the U.S. Department of State’s Resettlement Program, has helped to resettle more than 475 refugees and their families over the past six years. Most of the refugees are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and Burma, and were approved for resettlement in Wichita through the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

To learn more about World Refugee Day or any Saint Francis Migration Ministries programs call (316) 977-9276 or visit The Saint Francis Foundation here.

‘if you help them, if you care for them, you will grow to love them’

Lately, we’ve been celebrating Saint Francis foster parents who provide security, care, and love every day to children in need.

Foster parents see firsthand the remarkable ways children respond to structure and acceptance. They know well the transformative power of love to heal broken lives and families. 

Today, we share the story of Gabriel and Christa, who were recently named Saint Francis’ Kansas Foster Family of the Year for 2017. Once you hear their story, you’ll know why. 

Gabriel Downey didn’t know what to do. He’d never been around a child with such severe autism. How was he supposed to relate to the kid when he didn’t even know how to communicate with him? So, Gabriel spent the first three days just observing, keeping his distance until he could get a handle on it. On the fourth day, he got a phone call.

“It was my mom, telling me my aunt had passed away,” he said. “My aunt was like a second mother to me. After the call, I went into the living room and sat down and began to tell Christa. I started crying. Then … I don’t know why … but he must have picked up on how upset I was. Bubby just sat on my lap and put his head on my chest, like he was trying to tell me everything was going to be okay.”

The experience still chokes up the tough-looking, tattooed Gabriel. For Christa, his wife, it was just one more thing to love about the new 15-year-old boy in their home.

Licensed since 2016, Christa and Gabriel decided to try fostering after getting to know the foster parents – and eventual adoptive parents – of Gabriel’s great-niece. Initially, they planned to provide only respite and emergency care. And that’s all they did for a while – until they heard about a boy.

Between the two of them, Christa and Gabriel have three biological children, two of whom have high-functioning autism. That, and the fact that Christa is an elementary school special needs para educator, made their home seem a logical place for “Bubby.”

“A friend of mine who works at the school with me also works at Saint Francis,” said Christa. “She said, ‘You need to ask about this boy. No one else is able to keep him.’ Our caseworker was doubtful, and said ‘You’ve already got enough craziness in your house, but if you think you can handle it, you can try.’ For two months, she called every day to ask if we were okay.”

For Gabriel and Christa, though, there was never any question. They knew they were the boy’s last best hope.

“He was nonverbal with severe special needs,” said Christa, “and he had slept in eight different homes in two weeks. Autistic children need structure, so he didn’t have a place where he felt safe. Unfortunately, when people can’t handle kids like him, the child often ends up in an institution. We feared that might be the next step for him, and for us, that was not an option.”

Still, at first they wondered what they’d gotten themselves into. Gabriel says the boy came into the house “like a whirlwind, a tornado of him.” Although, he had autism like their other children, his was much more severe. Gradually, though, he settled down. As the Downey family patiently applied structure and routine, he began to feel more secure. Now, he’s happy and acts as though he’s always been a member of the family.

“I did, however, notice that when I called him by his name, he wouldn’t always respond,” said Gabriel. “I’d always called my brother ‘Bubba’ growing up, so I thought I’d try the same with him. But I didn’t want to confuse the two, so instead of calling him ‘Bubba’ like my brother, I started calling him ‘Bubby.’ He seemed to respond well to that and still does. Even his biological siblings call him Bubby now.”

Bubby sees his biological siblings often because Christa and Gabriel have forged a strong, supportive relationship with his mother. They all visit the Downey home in Park City, Kansas, often – for cook-outs on holidays and other special events. She’s a single mother with four other children, all with high functioning autism. It’s a full-time job taking care of them herself. Christa and Gabriel have told her they’d like to adopt Bubby, and she has said okay.

“For her to be the best mom she can be and focus on her other four children, she knows this is a good option,” said Christa. “With Bubby, she’s ‘Mommy Number 1’ and I’m ‘Mommy Number 2,’ and we intend to stay connected with her.”

So, Bubby now has a permanent home and lots of people in his life who care about him. He’s a testament to what love can do for the human person. Christa says her Saint Francis caseworkers like to half-jokingly ask, “Is this the same child?”

“It really has been a great experience,” said Gabriel. “You just have to remember to have understanding and patience with special needs kids. They’re going to have their moments, but you need to realize that what they’re doing makes sense to them at the time. There are fun days and there are challenging days, but overall it’s deeply rewarding.”

“Take one day at a time,” added Christa. “Don’t try to imagine how things will be in six months. You can’t plan for that. You have to focus on the next five minutes. Deal with what’s going on right now. Special needs kids will sometimes push you away because they don’t have control over anything else. It’s not that they don’t love you, they just don’t want your help right now. But I promise you, if you help them, if you care for them, you will grow to love them. Every day is something new.”