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Group sets up shop to make fostering kids a little bit easier in Sonoma County

Where to find Our Village Closet

What: Our Village Closet

When: Open 1-5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays

Where: 905 Mendocino Ave. in Santa Rosa, on the campus of St. Luke Lutheran Church

Information: ourvillagecloset.org or facebook.com/ourvillagecloset.

Amanda Kitchens had already spent years supporting kids in Sonoma County’s foster care system when she got a call three years ago that a newborn needed a family to stay with — immediately.

When she got that call, the baby boy was 48 hours old. Kitchens had a little more than two hours notice. Her first move to was to call her husband.

“I told my husband, ‘Don’t check the bank account,’” she said.

Then she went shopping.

“I went to Target. I grabbed all kinds of stuff,” she said. “Our car seat was expired, we had no clothes. He had two preemie outfits … he was going through drug withdrawals, so I needed special bottles, I needed vibrating pads, I needed a white-noise machine.”

She knew the drill and knew her family could manage it, but it fed her feeling that families offering to foster kids were already giving so much. Asking them to buy mountains of supplies seemed too much. Support systems should be in place to make it as easy as possible for potential foster families to say yes when those calls come.

“If (Our Village Closet) had existed then, I would have gone right there,” she said.

Our Village Closet is the brainchild of Kitchens and co-founder Dominique Soileau, a pair of moms who for years have collected and stored donations of clothes, toys, furniture and gear, kept them in two separate storage units at either end of Sonoma County, and used gifted warehouse space.

If they don’t have the item a foster family needs, they try to find a way to get it.

“It’s hard stuff,” Kitchens said of caring for foster kids. “This is hard work that people are being asked to do. So we say, ‘Yes, let us help you with the supplies and all of that, so you can get the heart work.’ It takes so much.”

Their website has a button where clients can ask for specific items and donors can fill that need. They also collect gently used items from clothes to furniture. And Kitchens doesn’t mind saying they set the bar high for the kids they serve. Stained or ripped clothes? Damaged toys? Not here, thanks.

“This is also about restoring dignity and giving them a choice to be similar to their peers. We are very picky about that,” she said.

‘It legitimized us’

That call that Kitchens got three years ago? She’s answered it four times. Kitchens and her husband have adopted all four kids. Their children are 9, 8, 6 and 3. So Kitchens knows what it takes and what it takes out of you.

And she also knows the love it brings. And that’s a reason why she pushes to support families who say yes.

In a year in which the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc and things fell apart for so many and in so many ways, things came together for Our Village Closet. They got their nonprofit 501(c)(3) status and were largely gifted use of 3,000 square feet of space within St. Luke Lutheran Church in downtown Santa Rosa.

DPR Construction volunteered hours labor and installed flooring free of charge and Make It Home Bay Area, a nonprofit furniture provider to those in need, outfitted the space with couches, tables and desks.

And last week, Our Village Closet opened its doors. No longer a couple of storage units or borrowed warehouse space, the place is now a storefront and resource center where foster families can get the supplies — furniture, diapers, strollers, clothes — they need free of charge.

The push, spurred by a financial grant and some tactical advice from Ashley Hurd and the Marin County Foster Association, moved a driven, grassroots project fueled by love and passion into what Kitchens described as the real deal.

“It legitimized us,” Kitchens said of the events of the past year.

Today, racks of clothing are organized by size. Shoes are paired and stacked on a shelf that stretches along one wall. Nursing pillows, diapers, baby carriers, strollers, car seats — everything one would expect to see in the baby section of a major retail store — are there. And it’s all free.

The need is real, Hurd said.

“People were shopping there while we were putting it together,” she said.

‘A lot of folks have the heart to do it’

There are approximately 500 kids in the foster care system in Sonoma County, Kitchens said. And there are only about half as many families as are needed to support them, she said.

“The problem is not only recruiting and training, there is such burnout,” she said. “I think between 30% and 40% of foster parents will quit after the first year. They didn’t realize it was so hard, so emotional.”

So, Our Village Closet aims to lighten the load for the families that do take this on.

“People aren’t saying yes, because it’s really, really hard work,” Hurd said. “We are saying, ‘We will help you. You just take care of the kids, whatever you need, we will help you.’ A lot of folks have the heart to do it but don’t have the finances.”

And sometimes it’s just flat-out a matter of what’s practical.

Hurd has fostered six kids, five of them infants, over the years. But when the children are reunited with families, Hurd sends them on with all of her supplies: clothes, furniture, toys, books, gear — it all goes.

So when the next call comes, she has to start again.

“We have a 6-month-old, and when I got her, I didn’t have a bassinet. I didn’t have the things that a newborn needs. Those of us who foster regularly, we can only store so much stuff,” she said.

In addition to the “stuff” side of things, Our Village Closet hopes to give folks connections — to counseling, to classes, to support groups, to social meetups and mentoring partnerships.

“Although this is a building and it’s stuff, what happens at the resource center is way more than that,” Hurd said. “It’s a place where people gather and talk about their struggles.”

And on good days, they can talk about their triumphs, too.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Where to find Our Village Closet

What: Our Village Closet

When: Open 1-5 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays

Where: 905 Mendocino Ave. in Santa Rosa, on the campus of St. Luke Lutheran Church

Information: ourvillagecloset.org or facebook.com/ourvillagecloset.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

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