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Santa Rosa program gives foster families ‘a safe space,’ free resources

How to help

Our Village Closet accepts donated clothing, toys, furniture, baby and toddler gear, small household items and more in good to new condition. They also accept monetary donations. People also can buy items directly from an Amazon wish list to donate. The Closet is in particular need now of backpacks and school supplies. For contact information, hours and more, visit ourvillagecloset.org or find them on Facebook, where you also can donate. Their phone number is 707-238-2806.

When foster parents Katie Anderson and her partner got a call that they immediately would be receiving a set of siblings from another county, they assumed there would be just two. They were stunned to learn that five kids were on their way, each with serious mental, physical and emotional problems, any of which would challenge any parent.

The oldest had leukemia. The second oldest had an extremely rare genetic disorder. The middle kids struggled with deafness, autism and ADD. The youngest had severe behavioral, social and emotional problems because she had been molested from infancy by her mother’s boyfriend. She was 3.

It was an emergency placement and these extremely sick, needy and traumatized children were coming with only the clothes they were wearing.

It was 10 p.m. but Anderson, in desperation, knew she could call Dominique Soileau, a fellow foster parent who knew the ropes and what she needed. Soileau rushed over and helped Anderson figure out where everyone would sleep and by morning had a set of bunk beds delivered.

“She had toys for them to make them feel at home. She had food delivered to our house to help us out. It was just beyond what I expected,” Anderson said. “All I could do was cry because I was just so thankful I had someone like Dominique in my life who could help out and to be able to help out these kids and make them feel at home so quickly.”

Soileau and her friend Amanda Kitchens have been offering 911-style support to overwhelmed fellow foster parents for years. At the end of 2018, they decided it was time to formalize their efforts. They registered a web domain name, set up a Facebook page and opened Our Village Closet, a clearing house for resources desperately needed by foster parents who can’t possibly be prepared for the widely varying needs of the children who may be brought to them on very short notice.

“I had one with 30 minutes’ notice. I couldn’t accommodate that one,” lamented Soileau, who has adopted three of the children she fostered.

One challenge is simply the massive amount of supplies the average parent accumulates and takes for granted. But until last month, Our Village Closet was were a closet in name only.

For two and a half years, Soileau and Kitchens, who has adopted all four children she fostered, collected donations of all kinds and stashed them in whatever vacant place they could find — in the garage, a bedroom, storage lockers, a backyard treehouse, donated warehouse space. The pair, struggling to remember what was stored where, darted around the county, pulling together clothing, toys, baby gear, car seats and a multitude of other items for newborns to teens and delivered them to stressed foster parents scrambling to provide a welcoming home on the fly.

In June, however, after a stressful year of porch drops during COVID-19, Our Village Closet cut the ribbon on a permanent location, two floors of a vacant school space at St. Luke Lutheran Church on Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa.

Here, care providers can shop and choose necessities themselves, from socks to strollers, with everything nice or new and neatly ordered. Upstairs is a cool space just for teens and young adults up to age 24 who are emerging from foster care and striking out on their own. It’s stocked with contemporary clothing, backpacks and other school gear, as well as basic household items. There is a resource space with books and materials to help foster parents with children who have special needs, a work/craft table and a zippered tent where children who need to withdraw can chill out.

Any foster parent, youth or child can take what they want, with no limits or conditions. It’s all free.

Our Village Closet also offers emotional support, peer counseling to other parents, advice and resources to help caregivers engulfed by the responsibility and complexity of caring for children with so many special needs and wounds. Kitchens and Soileau have been offering these resources ad hoc for years, but now a permanent home will allow them to create more formal programs.

For their volunteer efforts to provide desperately needed support for foster children and their families while also caring for their own, Soileau and Kitchens are being honored with this month’s North Bay Spirit Award. A joint project of The Press Democrat and Comcast, the Spirit Award puts a spotlight on individuals who go above and beyond to find creative ways to address unmet needs in the community, typically as volunteers.

“What Dominique and Amanda are doing is beyond just handing out clothes and cradles. They’re providing a safe space for these families to go,” said Anderson, who has adopted two foster kids and now volunteers at Our Village Closet. “They’re providing a support space and resources for these families, who are given what the county can give them, but it isn’t much, unfortunately.”

How to help

Our Village Closet accepts donated clothing, toys, furniture, baby and toddler gear, small household items and more in good to new condition. They also accept monetary donations. People also can buy items directly from an Amazon wish list to donate. The Closet is in particular need now of backpacks and school supplies. For contact information, hours and more, visit ourvillagecloset.org or find them on Facebook, where you also can donate. Their phone number is 707-238-2806.

Place of support

When a foster child arrives, there is no baby shower, no meal trains, no string of family and friends coming by to hold the baby or do chores so a new mom can catch her breath. Kitchens and Soileau said friends with biological children just can’t understand to the severity of the challenges they deal with.

Foster parents also can feel isolated and overwhelmed, as they’re often restricted from talking about those challenges because of confidentiality agreements. But they can open up, within “the vault” of the company of other foster parents.

“In our house, we have autism, PTSD, heart disease, a heart defect, kidney disease, cognitive delays, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders that require a different subset of friends that understand that my child is not a brat. He just doesn’t have any executive function or social skills,” Kitchens said. “I’ve landed in the hospital a couple of times because I don’t listen to my body until it’s roaring at me because I’ll say, ‘I just don’t have time. This kid needs me.’”

Moving into a permanent 3,000-square-foot space has enabled Soileau and Kitchens to triple the number of foster families and youth they serve, from an average of about 30 a month to as many as 100.

Everyone who walks through the door gets a hug. And if they need to simply sit and vent or melt down, that’s OK. They can take a seat on what Soileau and Kitchens call “the crying couch” and let it all out.

There are about 500 children in the foster care system in Sonoma County, but there are only half as many families as are needed to care for them, Kitchens said. The burnout rate is high, with 30% to 40% of foster parents quitting after the first year.

The foster youth they serve struggle in different ways.

“No matter how much professional support you have, there is nothing that compares to community support,” said Monica Julian, a former attorney for foster youth in Sonoma County and a onetime foster child herself. She now serves on Our Village Closet’s board.

For youth, the greatest gift is not necessarily things but what those things signify — that someone cared enough to give something to them.

Soileau recalls one caregiver who called asking to bring in a teenager who had just arrived at his home 12 hours earlier. The girl’s reserved demeanor changed the minute she walked into the shop, with its modern couch in bright geometric shapes and the colorful stickers arrayed on a coffee table. She tried on a fancy dress for fun but lamented she had no place to wear it.

“You don’t have to,” Soileau told her. “If it makes you feel pretty, that’s all you need.”

Growing the village

Shelby Means, director of the TLC Child and Family Services Transitional Housing Program, which serves older teens and young adults aging out of the system or experiencing homelessness, said the financial support youth get is for housing, groceries and utilities, but it doesn’t cover other life essentials. Some of these youth have kids of their own. Our Village Closet fills that gap.

“Dominique and Amanda are reducing the stress that allows them to focus more on parenting and independent living skills and not worry about how they’re going to pay for formula today. When a parent has less stress, they can be better parents and spend more time bonding with their kids,” Means said. She knows the struggles firsthand. She has fostered 22 kids, adopted a 4-year-old and has a 15-year-old foster child now, in addition to two biological children.

Our Village Closet held giveaways during COVID-19 to get necessities into the hands of grateful foster youth. In December they partnered with TLC’s Transitional Housing Program for a holiday giveaway of clothes, toys and household items to serve more than 40 youth. In March they raised $2,000 to help buy a shed for the transitional program to store baby gear so young parents can take what they need right at the TLC Transitional Housing Program resource center, across from St Luke Lutheran Church.

Fostering as a calling

Kitchens and Soileau consider their work a calling. They each came to fostering out of a desire to have children after experiencing infertility.

Soileau, 38, who lives in Guerneville, had long worked with kids, first in after-school programs and summer camps and then for 10 years as a one-on-one special education aid in the classroom. But she couldn’t have a child of her own. She was inspired to foster by her experience working with a foster family that had adopted 12 children.

“There were many times when we regretted it,” she said, “but never long enough to say no.”

Kitchens, 43, who lives in Healdsburg, said at first she hesitated to foster, fearful of the myriad problems foster kids struggle with and wary of becoming emotionally attached to a child she could lose. But after she spotted a billboard for foster parenting and took it as a sign, she and her husband Chad signed on with hopes of adopting any children they took in.

However, part of the deal is supporting the possibility of children reuniting with their birth parents or a family member, even taking them for visits. It can be a protracted process. For one of her adopted children, Kitchens waited three years before he was deemed adoptable. It can, she said, feel like emotional whiplash. And yet, keeping detached to protect one’s heart is not good for the kids either.

“You’re loving this child like they’re your own but remembering they’re someone else’s,” said Kitchens, whose first child arrived at eight and a half weeks old and was going through drug withdrawal. “You have to let all those walls down. Because as hard as it is to say goodbye, these kids need to know that attachment and what love is like.”

Foster parents often are caught off guard by the range of emotions they feel, which may even include attachment or compassion for the birth parents.

Kevin and Kathy Northen of Santa Rosa came in to Our Village Closet on a recent morning, needing to stock up for the impending arrival of two children, ages 18 months and 3, their fourth foster placement. They picked out car seat, a red tricycle, some stuffed animals. They have had their hearts broken before. But each child brings hope. One little guy came to them with nothing as an infant, was reunited later with his family and then returned to them as a toddler, again with nothing.

Soileau and Kitchens remember him trotting into the Closet and picking out a Kermit the Frog hat for himself. Kevin Northen said he slept in that hat. They just reunited him with an aunt. But the goodbyes are wrenching.

When he and Kathy said goodbye to a pair of siblings, he said, “I cried. It hurt me. But at the same time, I was happy for them, too. … Our No. 1 goal each time is to help them with whatever happens. But our endgame, if there is a child available, is to adopt.”

Differing strengths

Soileau and Kitchens each bring different strengths to their shared mission. Soileau, with her background in child services, is a whiz at networking, fundraising and building community partnerships.

Kitchens has strong skills with social networking and taking care of the details behind the scenes. It’s all part of their belief that “it takes a village” to raise healthy, strong and resilient children. Every bit counts.

“You don’t have to be a foster parent to actually make a significant difference and have an impact in the lives of these youth,” Kitchens said. “We’ve had some, especially the older ones, who will start sobbing because a stranger bought them something they wanted. It’s not just the item itself but the fact that somebody cared enough to buy it. That is huge for their self-esteem.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.

 

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