According to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, nearly 600
According to Lindsey Daniels, The James Project's operations manager, the organization fulfills this mission through three main ministries: The Call, The Closet and The James Project Homes. The Call is a program to recruit and mentor new foster parents. Staff works to help interested parties become licensed foster and adoptive parents and mentors in areas pertaining to counseling, financial planning and parenting.
The Closet program supplies physical needs such as clothing, shoes, winter coats, diapers, hygiene kits, mattresses and bedding when a child is newly placed in a foster home. "To accomplish this, we have created a system of volunteers and delivery that works closely with DCFS and the other five child welfare agencies in Sangamon County," Daniels said.
Through The James Project Homes, carefully selected large foster families are provided with quality homes. The James Project currently owns and maintains five houses and leases them for $1 per year.
"Normally, foster parents take in multiple children or whole sibling groups at a time," said Daniels, noting that some sibling groups are more than three children. "By providing homes that come with four to five bedrooms and three bathrooms, we are supplying foster parents with the space to accept more children into their homes."
The James Project covers the mortgage and home maintenance. Volunteers assist with house and yard work, home-cooked meals and maintenance projects. Daniels said this network of support for the foster parents frees them up so they "can focus their energy on welcoming the children entering their homes" and use their energy to "create a home that is safe, consistent, loving and secure."
"We are seeing more and more senior citizens having to step up and foster their grandbabies," Daniels added. "With most members of the senior-citizen community being retired, having their own health concerns and living on a fixed income, adding extra kiddos into their home is not something they can afford or ever have expected. They do everything they can to make sure that their grandchildren have what they need so they won't get taken away from them, but then they aren't able to take care of themselves."
Using grant funds, volunteer shoppers with The James Project deliver groceries to senior-led foster homes multiple times a year to help alleviate costs. Seniors also benefit from the Adopt A Child Christmas program in which community members, supplied with Christmas lists for each child, buy three gifts: a want, a need and an educational resource. This program received a boost in 2021 when Amber Chiapetto, an area photographer and social media personality, shared her story about growing up as a foster kid with her more than 800,000 followers on TikTok.
Because of her history in foster care, our mission tugged on her heartstrings and she wanted to get involved," said Daniels. "With Amber's support and the help of her followers, we were able to double the number of foster children served in our Adopt A Child Christmas program in 2021.
"These elderly foster parents can also apply to receive resources from our adventure fund. Our adventure fund can help send these kiddos to camp, take music lessons, participate in sports or take part in extracurricular and enrichment opportunities that can help the family bond and make memories together while helping the child flourish and learn life skills," Daniels said.
When foster parents are supported by receiving the help they need, the children benefit by experiencing fewer disruptions. "When a child has a more stable environment, that leads to less disruption, stress and trauma in their lives," Daniels said. "As they grow up, they have a lower percentage of committing criminal acts or going to jail and a higher percentage of doing well in school, going to college and having careers to support their own life or the lives of their families. They become physically and emotionally healthy, contributing members of the community."
The greatest challenge for The James Project is supporting those who work in child welfare agencies. Caseworkers are the bridge to getting children safely from one point to the other. "When a child has the same caseworker for the entire time they are in foster care, their permanency rate is 70%," said Daniels. "When that child has multiple caseworkers, that level of permanency drops to 17%."
The greatest reward is seeing foster families flourish. "When we can come alongside foster families and help them feel seen and supported, we know we are doing our job," said Daniels. "Sometimes that support looks like a home-cooked meal or a car seat. Other times it means that their kiddo gets to take gymnastics or piano lessons. Helping with school supplies, groceries or Christmas presents may seem small, but it can be burdensome for foster parents. ... The parents can focus on creating a loving, safe environment for their kiddos instead of worrying about the expenses that come along with caring for someone."
The James Project receives no government funding for the many programs it offers. All programs are provided through private grants and generous donors in the community.
Janet Seitz is a local communications professional, writer and artist. To share your story, contact her at [email protected].