In 2005, Marion County was in the midst of a crisis. The use and production of methamphetamine was spreading like a plague throughout the community, and the social impact was devastating. A local initiative called No Meth, Not in My Neighborhood had been launched and was having great success in helping law enforcement shut down meth labs throughout the county. However, an unanticipated result of this initiative was a surge in the number of children coming into the foster care system who were being removed from homes impacted by meth. Suddenly, the foster care system was being overwhelmed, and lacked the resources to effectively care for these innocent victims.
In response, Dick Withnell, a local business leader and philanthropist, mobilized the faith community in Marion County to take action. Don Brandt, a local pastor responded by organizing a meeting with several members of his church who had social service backgrounds. He asked his members to brainstorm ideas about different pathways for the faith community to support DHS and meet this need.
Brandy Steelhammer, a licensed social worker, attended the meeting. As a former counselor for children in foster care, she had worked closely with DHS Child Welfare. Brandy knew that one of the greatest challenges for foster parents was finding someone to watch their children so they could get a break. Brandy knew that a time of respite was crucial for the well-being of foster parents, and this would aid DHS in retaining the valuable service they offered. Soon after, Brandy and Kathi Walker were brought together. At the time, Kathi was serving as children’s ministry director at Our Savior's Lutheran Church. Kathi immediately jumped at the opportunity to help lead a ministry for foster families. For Kathi the reasons were personal. Kathi had grown up in a family that had been greatly impacted by the foster care system, and she knew firsthand how foster parents and children needed the faith community’s support.
Kathi’s expertise in program development, early childhood education and church ministry was invaluable. The new friends drafted a plan for Foster Parents’ Night Out (FPNO), and then approached the Oregon Department of Human Services. In October 2006, the first FPNO officially launched. Many DHS staff members were on hand with more than 25 church volunteers as they played games, made arts and crafts, and shared a meal with a wonderful group of children, ages 0-18.
Since that time, FPNO has become a network of churches on mission to serve foster families by offering monthly respite. Churches of varying denominations throughout Oregon offer FPNO events. The partnership with DHS continues to play a central role in the success of FPNO, by working alongside church coordinators, training FPNO volunteers, matching foster families to FPNO sites, and helping set policies and procedures that shape how we serve our families.
It is our greatest hope that churches across Oregon and beyond will join us in offering FPNO. FPNO is a wonderful blessing for foster families and the volunteers who open their hearts to the precious children in their communities.