When faith makes a family
Oklahoma churches, including many in Tulsa, are partnering with the state to meet the needs of children in foster care.
Jonette Coquat with her three children, ages 8, 4 and 3. Coquat became a foster parent to the sibling group 3 1/2 years ago and is raising the children with the support of her Tulsa church.
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“Does God get what God wants?”
The question echoed off the walls of the auditorium filled with northeastern Oklahoma church leaders and members. Benjamin Nockels repeated it. Again, silence.
Nockels, a former Oklahoma City pastor, is today what he calls the “visionary leader” behind the 111Project, a statewide initiative to leave no Oklahoma child without a family. The crowd he spoke to Oct. 4 was gathered for the statewide 8308 Conference at Southern Hills Baptist Church, where representatives of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and Tulsa churches spoke about foster care needs.
The conference is named for the 8,308 children who were in state custody on Jan. 1, according to OKDHS. These children — newborns to age 18 — do not have families to care for them. They may have been neglected, abandoned or abused. They may have been subjected to extreme poverty or drug abuse. Their caregivers may have been incarcerated. Now, they’ve been removed from the only home they’ve known.
In late 2010, Nockels was asked to represent the Oklahoma City faith community at a meeting with leaders from OKDHS, the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and the community to assess the need for recruiting additional foster families across the state.
“(OKDHS representatives) said, ‘We need as many as 1,500 more foster families statewide, and we, DHS, have identified the faith community as the very best place to go get these families, but we don’t have access to them,’” Nockels recalls.
As a result of what Nockels calls “a groundswell of activity” in the statewide faith community around foster care, the 111Project — which stands for “1 church, 1 family, 1 purpose” — launched in April 2011 in Oklahoma City, followed by a Tulsa launch in October 2011. While the project is not affiliated with OKDHS and receives no state funding, it supports the objectives of OKDHS, Nockels says.
At press time, 92 Oklahoma churches — mostly from Oklahoma City and Tulsa — had pledged more than 400 families from their congregations to foster a child or children through the 111Project, and more than 300 families had committed to do so. However, Nockels says OKDHS would like to add 500 more foster families by June 30, 2013, a goal outlined in the agency’s Pinnacle Plan.
Tulsa’s unique strength is its volunteer-led effort of about 20 individuals working directly with churches, Nockels says.
Mollie Myers, director of City Church’s LoveTulsa ministry, is one of those volunteers. In April 2011, she and a group of church members visited the Laura Dester Children’s Center in north Tulsa for Easter activities with children in the shelter’s temporary care.
Myers later realized two of the boys who had helped her hide eggs had been in her own church’s children’s department years ago.
“It just undid me. It messed me up so badly,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, God, what could we have done? Where did we drop the ball?’ I felt so condemned in some ways, because we had this family in our church.”
Myers says many people believe it’s the job of OKDHS to raise children whose families cannot provide the care they need. In fact, she admits she used to feel the same way.
“Well, it’s DHS’ goal to make sure that child is safe, but it’s not their job to raise that child,” she says. “They’re not a parent. They’re not a family, and they shouldn’t have to act as one, and they are having to act as one right now.”
On Tuesday evenings, Myers reads to the children at the shelter. Volunteers aren’t allowed into bedrooms, though the kids ask her repeatedly to come in to read to them. She calls the experience “heart-wrenching,” yet she is compelled to return each week.
“It feels so institutional,” Myers says. “It’s like, ‘I want to come in there and talk to you, and brush your hair and put you to sleep, just like I do my own kids, but I have to (read) from the doorway.’”
The saddest part is, Myers says, “I’ve been reading to some of the same kids for months.”