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As Assemblies of God youth pastors, Gary and Tammie Webb of Phoenix developed an after-school assistance drop-in program for latchkey kids at the church they served. The Webbs had a passion to reach out to unsupervised youth ages 12-18 who might fall prey to gang activity or illegal drugs.
But one particular group of kids gripped their hearts: foster children who lived in group homes and had no family to go home to in the evening. The Webbs learned such children staying in modern-day orphanages lacked nurturing from adults.
"No one else was working with these kids," Gary Webb says. "They really were a lost generation. We had to change that."
After 22 years as youth pastors, the Webbs became AG U.S. missionary chaplains in 2010 and began to focus exclusively on a grassroots community awareness plan to connect churches with kids in foster care group homes. The Webbs, through their nonprofit ministry OCJ Kids, act as liaison in contacting churches around Arizona that are located within the vicinity of one of the state's 270 foster care group homes.
Working with a church's pastor or missions director, the Webbs show the need for volunteers to interact with kids who have been removed from their own home and placed into an institutional setting. The children range from infants to high school seniors. Webb says there are so many group homes in the state because there aren't enough individual families available to care for the 17,000 foster kids in Arizona.
Following training, the volunteers arrange times to visit the group home and provide parental involvement the children wouldn't receive otherwise: doing craft projects, playing board games, baking cookies, providing cooking lessons. Along the way, the caring adult mentors from churches provide spiritual lessons that teach character, and explain how God has a plan for the foster child's life, no matter how fractured the current situation might seem.
"Church members just kind of hang out and provide a family atmosphere," Webb says. "People don't have to be a foster parent or adoptive parent to impact a kid for eternity."
OCJ Kids also completes another need the Webbs saw going unfulfilled. Working with churches, the Webbs launched a statewide effort to collect hygiene kits for children who are removed from their homes with only the clothes on their backs. The kits contain items such as toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and a toothbrush.
In a similar vein, the Webbs have rounded up support from churches to provide "kinship kits" for children who are abruptly yanked out of their home in the middle of the night and transported to a foster care situation. These drawstring backpack kits contain a new stuffed animal, snacks, bottled water, a pillow, a throw blanket, craft activity books, crayons, and the Book of Hope. The idea is to provide a modicum of comfort and safety during the gut-wrenching transition.
Certainly the Webbs are innovative when it comes to remedying unmet needs. Their latest effort stemmed from seeing children sleeping on the floors at Child Protective Services (CPS) offices -- sometimes for several nights in a row -- without a pillow, blanket, or any type of bedding.
Subsequently, they created an overnight emergency sleep kit that provides every statewide CPS office with an air mattress, fitted sheet, blanket, and pillow. Each office is stocked with at least four such kits, which are collected and distributed by church volunteers. Two AG churches -- White Mountain Life Church Assemblies of God in Show Low and First Assembly in Kingman -- have agreed to let such stranded children stay in their buildings rather than in a CPS workplace.
Lynette Roggero, children's pastor at Kingman First Assembly, says the church has allowed CPS workers to use the facilities about 20 times in the past year. Children can do everything from watch a DVD to take a shower in the church's learning center.
"We want to help these kids who have been removed from their homes," Roggero says. "Their hearts are hurting. Getting them out of the CPS office and giving them an opportunity to be in a more relaxed setting will help get their minds off of their situation, even if only momentarily, and let them know they are special and cared for."
The Webbs also have arranged for churches to be host sites for supervised state visits between birth parents and their children in foster care. The average length of stay in a group foster home is a year and a half.
In yet another innovative program, the Webbs introduced an opportunity for congregations to assist kids who "age out" of the foster care system by providing them with a suitcase filled with practical living supplies.
Daniel and Judy Fink of Glendale, Arizona, helped mentor a 17-year-old girl for the final year before she aged out of the system. The Finks, who have three grown children, provided nurturing and friendship for Naomy Blanton, who became like an adopted daughter to them. Daniel is an insurance marketing representative and Judy is a registered nurse.
"Some foster kids don't have anyone to guide them through the process of the things most of us take for granted," Daniel Fink says. For instance, they helped Naomy track down a birth certificate, obtain a Social Security card, and secure a driver's license --after allowing her to practice driving with their cars. Although no family members attended Naomy's high school graduation, the Finks did.
By age 21, Naomy had joined the military, married, and given birth to a baby.
"I don't know where I would be without the Finks," Blanton says. "They were very supportive of me. They pointed me in the right direction, but let me make mistakes so I could learn from them."
The Webbs also are in the process of opening a transitional home for boys who reach age 18 and no longer qualify for the state-run group home. The residence will be supervised by church volunteers.
Throughout the year, OCJ Kids hosts seasonal events for foster youth living in group homes: a teen career development fair, an overnight cowboy camp, a tools-for-success back-to-school party, and One Bright Star Christmas Experience, where every child receives presents.
In all their ministry efforts, the Webbs believe they are following the U.S. Missions objective that none perish.
"We believe God has begun a movement across the country for the church to reclaim these fatherless orphans and to change the culture of foster care in America," Webb says.