In Charlotte, there are nearly 500 children in foster care. The city has more children in foster care than there are foster families to support them. That’s where organizations like Foster Village Charlotte come into play.
Becky Santoro and her husband fostered and adopted her third daughter. She loved being a foster parent, but it was overwhelming at times. She and three other foster mothers connected online, but still, they felt like they didn’t have enough support.
“We kept trying to find it, and we kept trying to join other things and after about a year we said, ‘You know what, I think the answer is inside of us. I think we just have to get to work to make it work in our city,’ ” Santoro said.
Santoro described foster parenting as a “silent struggle.” When they need help, foster parents must rely on their own private networks for support because laws mandate that foster parents keep information about their child private for their protection.
They looked for an organization that could help them and found Foster Village, a nonprofit based out of Austin, Texas, that provides resources for foster families.
The mothers had a lot of questions about how to bring something like this to Charlotte and developed a friendship with Chrystal Smith, Foster Village’s founder. The women opened Foster Village’s first affiliate earlier this summer.
Smith said Foster Village not only helps families, but also makes people aware of the hardships foster parents face.
“Not just meeting the basic needs on the front end," Smith said, "But also creating that awareness and conversation about foster care and the needs that are right in our backyards a lot of the time, that a lot of people just aren’t aware of."
Santoro said that’s what Foster Village Charlotte is trying to do.
“We want to strengthen the homes of the families that have said yes to this, and then we also want to give avenues for people outside of foster care to help and support those of us inside of it,” Santoro said.
The group currently runs Foster Village Charlotte out of two storage units — one in south Charlotte and one in east Charlotte.
Think of it as a hub for foster families, said Sloan Crawford. She is one of the four founders of the Charlotte branch and fosters three girls with her husband.
“We have parent’s night out," Crawford said. "We do foster family meetups and we have support groups.”
When it comes to equipping families, Foster Village Charlotte focuses on their welcome packs. These packages are personalized by age and gender. They include things like pajamas and diapers for younger kids, and journals and gift cards for older ones.
Children placed in homes, usually only arrive with the clothes on their backs. That was the experience for foster mom Kimberly Schoch.
“We were going to have this child in an hour, and she’s coming with nothing, so she literally showed up with a molded sippy cup and one diaper. That was it," Schoch said. "And [Foster Village] was here before bedtime with shampoo, hair brushes, toothbrushes, like, everything we needed. Pajamas, an outfit for the next day, just to get through the 24 hours. So it was just a huge blessing for us."
Foster parents in need of the group’s services can go to their website and fill out a form. Within 24 hours, a volunteer or the founders themselves will be on their doorstep with a bag of essentials.
Santoro and Crawford think that Foster Village will fill a void and help those families.
“A lot of the parents that are being licensed to be foster parents, after one placement, they’re deciding that this isn’t the job for them,” Santoro said.
Santoro said she believes this is because some foster parents — who are paid between $475 and $634 a month per child in Mecklenburg County — get overwhelmed and don’t have their own support systems or they don’t know other foster parents who can guide them through the process.
And Foster Village Charlotte has only begun. The vision for the nonprofit is to create a resource center that looks like a home, something that Foster Village Austin already has.
Chrystal Smith described the center in Austin as an important resource.
"We have a multi-use resource center here where the families, foster and kinship families are able to come and shop and get what the kids need when emergency placements are coming to a new home,” she said.
A goal for the Charlotte resource center, Santoro said, is to utilize it as a central meeting place for foster families where supervised visitations could occur, instead of in a sterile, government office building. They want to focus on foster families, but they want to be a village of support for the biological families as well.
Santoro said to think of it as a “Ronald McDonald House” for kids in foster care.
“We see this as a dignified approach for them to come to neutral ground that’s not run by the government," Santoro said, "That’s run by people that love and support the child, and maybe they get to bake cookies with their kid."
Foster Village said it’s bringing a big vision to the city, one it hopes will only get bigger as time goes on.