Published in The Catholic Commentator on April 4, 2014
By Richard Meek
As dawn’s first light heralded the arrival of Christmas morning, one needy Baton Rouge family awoke to holiday trappings normally reserved for the more fortunate.
Under the tree toys, a winter coat and even the dazzle of a shiny new bike awaited the 3-year-old boy. But the parents were not forgotten, either, also being able to experience the childlike thrill of ripping into Christmas presents.
Later that day, the family enjoyed a holiday dinner replete with ham and all of the trimmings.
“It was emotional, probably one of the best Christmases I've ever had,” said the mother, 36, who asked not to be identified. “I’ll never forget it.”
The family’s idyllic Christmas was made possible by Safe Families for Children, a national program launched locally by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge two years ago. Multi-faceted by design, the program offers a safety net for families in crisis.
Those problems are as divergent as a financial crisis to a parent fighting addiction and needing a temporary home for his or her child while that person seeks treatment.
Safe Families differs from foster care in that children are voluntarily placed in a home but will return to the family whenever the biological parent or parents desire. Additionally, the biological parent continues to play an active role in the life of the child and remains the decision-maker when the need arises.
“There is a tremendous amount of need,” said Janet Harkness, who coordinates the program at St. Jean Vianney Church in Baton Rouge and who was instrumental in creating the extraordinary Christmas celebration. “I believe it’s a God-sized project that he put here.”
“If you help a child at the very beginning, it’s going to make a bigger impact on society because that child is going to be secure, he’s going to accomplish more, he is going to be a better person, a better citizen. (In Safe Families) the parent now has dignity and respect because you let them stay involved with their children.”
Not all volunteers have the time or resources to become host families but are involved in varying roles, whether it’s buying diapers or driving a young child to a doctor’s appointment. Some families will babysit a child for several hours during the day or even at night to give the single parent or couple a much-needed respite.
Safe Families also offers counseling and tutoring services when needed.
Occasionally, logistical challenges can be daunting, Katie Underwood, program coordinator for Catholic Charities, said. One family may be hosting a child but because of scheduling conflicts, other volunteers are needed to transport the child back and forth to school.
“The premise of Safe Families is that host families take a child when a family is in crisis,” Underwood said. “We are keeping the kids out of foster care; we are finding those children a safe place while their mom is dealing with her crisis.”
Underwood said a child’s stay with the host family will vary from 30 days up to one year, depending on needs. She said a mother might call needing someone to take care of her children while she goes through a drug treatment program. When she completes the program, the mother “will be able to take the children back,” Underwood said.
“The reason this person is in crisis is they don’t have the support network so we are generating a whole support network,” she said. “That’s kind of the premise of the team.”
The matriarch of the needy family admitted turning to Safe Families with skepticism and a hint of fear. But she also realized she had few choices.
One day after moving to Baton Rouge from Ohio, she received a call from her doctor that what he thought was a harmless lump in one of her breast was indeed breast cancer.,Radiation, chemo and partial reconstructive surgery ensued but with her unable to work because of her health, the family’s finances suffered.
She initially turned down the help after meeting with one volunteer family because, “I honestly thought they were going to try to take my son away from me. I know Catholic Charities does adoptions, and all I kept saying to my husband is, ‘Do the people want my son?’”
But former program director Barbara Thompson continued to check on the family, which erased any doubt in the mind of the mother.
Since becoming involved in September Harkness and volunteers from St. Jean and Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge cooked meals, babysat, and have even arranged for the young boy to attend pre-school at St. Jean free of charge.
“It took a lot of stress off of us,” she said. “I was terrified and it ended up being one of the biggest blessings of my life. I’m so thankful for these wonderful people and everything that has happened the way it has.
“I told Janet I adopted her as my surrogate family.”
The admiration works both ways, Harkness said.
“It’s very rewarding to help people and to see them thrive with the help that you give them,” she said. “Maybe that’s a little bit selfish, too, that I’m getting so much out of helping them because it’s very much a blessing to give, very much a blessing.”
Underwood said she is seeking more volunteers to become involved with Safe Families.
For more information or to become involved, call 225-336-8700.