Last week, I announced a new series on supporting foster and adoptive families. You can find the first post here, and the second post here.
What is the foster pantry?
Though it has “foster” in the title, the pantry also serves adoptive and kinship placement families, as well as families at risk for CPS intervention. The pantry is filled with clothes, car seats, strollers, baby swings, diapers, toys, toiletries, and more, all available at no cost to the families.
How did the foster pantry get started?
A few years ago, my friends Elizabeth Carter and Jenny Closner began dreaming about opening a foster pantry through a foster and adoption support group called Faithful to the Fatherless. When Elizabeth lived elsewhere, her church started one, and she had seen firsthand how helpful it was to families.
Elizabeth (a foster and adoptive mom), and Jenny (an adoptive mom), prayed about the pantry and eventually a family in our church provided space for it in a small side building on their property. The pantry now shares a storage unit space with another ministry of our church. The items all come through donations.
Who runs it?
Elizabeth and Jenny are the primary contacts, and a few other volunteers have keys for meeting families at the pantry to go shopping.
Why is the pantry needed?
Very often, foster families receive a phone call just a few hours before a child is coming into their home. CPS interventions vary widely, and children are often in immediate need of a place to spend the night tonight.
Imagine that you are going about your day and suddenly the phone rings with a placement opportunity. How comforting to know that your next phone call can be to set up an appointment at a pantry that is stocked with the items you’ll need for this new season of your life!
The pantry is also open to families who are adopting, as they are often facing major costs. We want to celebrate the bringing of a child into a home, whether temporarily or permanently. So, the same way that we throw baby showers for friends who are pregnant (even when they have the ability to buy some items themselves), we want to show our support through the pantry.
Don’t foster families get reimbursed by the state? Don’t the kids bring things with them?
The pantry primarily provides items immediately needed at the time of placement (as opposed to ongoing needs months after a child has been placed, though we are happy for families to trade out clothing sizes, for example).
Foster parents are reimbursed by the state, but the reimbursements take a while to come in, and they’re not a high amount.
Children often come with nothing, or maybe a few belongings in a trash bag. So, for example, if the child is a baby, immediate needs would include a car seat, stroller, bottles, etc. – items that add up very quickly and can’t wait to be purchased when the reimbursement comes. The pantry removes the stress of those large initial costs.
How do families learn about the pantry?
Many of the foster and adoptive families in our community are a part of the Faithful to the Fatherless, so the word spreads easily there. Jenny and Elizabeth also have good relationships with caseworkers at our local CPS office who inform foster families that the pantry is available to them.
How do families set up an appointment?
Foster parents (and sometimes caseworkers) call Elizabeth or Jenny who arrange a time to meet the parent at the pantry. Sometimes, if the child is coming right this minute, a volunteer will go gather items for the family and deliver them. Ideally, though, the parent gets to shop and choose things they especially like and need.
How much can families take? How do you know you’re not being taken advantage of?
The vast majority of the time, Elizabeth and Jenny are imploring foster parents to take more. Rarely, almost never, have they felt that the pantry was taken advantage of.
In general, foster families are so thankful and overwhelmed by the offer of assistance during those crazy first days of transition that they restrain themselves a great deal when choosing items. (So Elizabeth and Jenny just add things to their bags :).)
Faithful to the Fatherless wants to steward donations well while honoring the dignity of each foster parent and child by giving generously and not being trapped by the fear of misuse. There will be times when the pantry or items from it are misused. But overall, abundant giving has been reciprocated with abundant gratitude.
Families are never expected to return the items that they take, though we’re certainly happy to take back items that are no longer needed (a crib, for example). The foster families are also encouraged to send items with foster children who leave their care to wherever they are going.
If resources were limited, it would be easy to come up with a checklist that is given to the foster parent (x number of outfits, etc.) to refer to as he or she shops.
How do you solicit donations?
When the pantry first opened, Jenny and Elizabeth spread the word through Faithful to the Fatherless and on social media that excellent used condition (this is really important – we want the families to receive items that communicate dignity) clothes and items were needed. Our community stepped up to the plate big time with clothes, and by the time I made it to the drop-off day, the only things still needed were bigger items like car seats and strollers.
I suggested to Jenny that I post on Facebook and see if anyone wanted to contribute toward the “grand opening” of the pantry. 24 hours later, the wild world of Facebook had blown me away by raising around $2000 toward needed items (read about it here).
Building on the momentum of that fundraiser, I started a Facebook group where supporters of Faithful to the Fatherless could stay in touch with ongoing needs. I’ll do a separate post on the Facebook group, but for now, it’s where we share a lot of information about items that are needed and fundraise for them.
How could I do something like this in my community?
Space, which could be as small as part of someone’s garage (maybe with attic space for car seats, etc.), or as large as a storage unit. You may start small and get bigger! Ideally, the space needs to be accessible by multiple volunteers who will have keys to take families shopping, so keep that in mind as you’re considering spaces (aka do you want to give 4 people keys to your garage?).
Volunteers to maintain inventory, fundraise/solicit used items, meet families at the pantry. Time commitments will vary based on the size of your city’s foster/adopt needs and how often new placements are made (you could learn this by contacting your local CPS office). Jenny and Elizabeth average about 3-5 hours per week meeting families at the pantry and maintaining inventory, and I average around the same with raising money for needed items, etc.
Keep in mind that this is an average. Some weeks, Elizabeth, Jenny, and/or I may spend 15 hours on the pantry, some weeks none at all. Largely, this is because some weeks the community may have no new placements, and some weeks it may have 10.
If you’re limited on volunteers/time, you could have a schedule of weekly availability for each volunteer and only allow appointments during those times. A lot of this will depend on season of life/other commitments for your volunteers, so I encourage you to all be very honest with each other about your schedules/capacity and set up the pantry in a way that will be sustainable for your volunteers.
Set up a clear line of communication between the people who are hands on at the pantry taking families shopping and maintaining inventory, and the person or people who fundraise for needed items. In our case, Jenny or Elizabeth will send me a text of what’s running low and I’ll get to work hassling people on Facebook for baby swings. Talk through it with your people to see what works and helps everyone stay on the same page.
A connection to foster families so they can learn about the pantry, such as an existing ministry or the local CPS office
A strategy for soliciting donations of new and/or excellent used condition items (post to come on some of our fundraising tips and tricks)
You may want:
A Facebook group (post to come!)
Someone who is comfortable manically posting in said Facebook group to solicit donations (in our case, this is me)
I am here for you as you determine if this is something your church, community group, or friends could get started. Please feel free to comment on this post or contact me with any questions!