Foster kids and families find safe haven at Covington’s James Storehouse

While living in Los Angeles in 2012, Kim Bigler got an email from a church seeking help for a teen who left foster care and had no heat in her apartment. It struck a nerve. Bigler had just bought a space heater to keep her dog warm in her garage.

“I said, ‘How in the world are we treating our animals better than we treat children who we have failed to give them family and security, and now we are failing to give them a safe place to stay upon leaving the system?’” Bigler said. “I was grumbling to myself saying, ‘What is the church doing? What is the community doing? What is the state doing that we failed this girl?’

“And, a still, small voice said, ‘Kim, what are you doing?’ That was my aha moment.”

Bigler did more than buy another space heater. Bigler made foster care her ministry.

She started James Storehouse, an outreach in the Florida Parishes that expands on an identically named effort she started in L.A. before returning to her native Covington in 2015. It has created an unusual connection between churches, state government and community volunteers.

The most visible part of the ministry is its Youth and Family Development Center, which opened Nov. 13 in Covington. Located in 4,700 square feet of space donated by Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, it will provide numerous services.

Foster children will have their supervised, court-mandated meetings with their parents in rooms filled with age-appropriate amenities and designed to reflect a relaxed, homelike environment. It’s far different from the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services buildings, often the same places where they were separated from their parents and put into foster care.

“When they were visiting, they were re-traumatized when they went to the state office building because of the smells, the looks, all the bad memories,” said Karl Zollinger, James Storehouse board president. “That’s why this looks the way it does.”

Christ Episcopal School students Kate Tournillon and Lucy Vanderbrook decorated the teen room, which has a sectional sofa, big-screen TV and three computer stations. The room will provide life skills training for foster teens and will also host nights where foster teens can gather while their foster parents have a date night.

The facility has a kitchen, a larger activity room and includes a shower, because children taken into state care often need a bath, Bigler said.

Holy Trinity Lutheran offered James Storehouse the space after hearing Bigler speak about the need to help foster families. Like many churches, Holy Trinity had seen its congregation age and shrink and decided this section of the building could be put to better use, said its pastor, the Rev. Danny Koyn.

“We kind of re-evaluated what outreach meant,” Koyn said. “Instead of straight, denominational evangelism — trying to make more Lutherans or more Christians — we thought, ‘What if we were to reach into our community and serve them?’”

Children’s Hospital Northshore Center will provide openings in its doctors’ schedules for foster children’s needs, said Cathleen Randon, Children’s Hospital marketing director.

The degree of support from so many sources delights DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters, who joined Gov. John Bel Edwards’ wife, Donna, at the James Storehouse grand opening. Donna Edwards has created an initiative promoting foster care in Louisiana.

“This is miraculous and unique and delightful and amazing,” Walters said. “It’s just an amazing space. It’s all of those things come together. It’s government. It’s church. It’s community-based. It’s a nonprofit. And that’s exactly what we had hoped for with Louisiana Fosters when the first lady started that.

“We can’t duplicate this. Can you imagine if the taxpayers thought they were paying for something like this in every region? There would be a huge outcry. So, the government can’t do this, and there is the school of thought that maybe the government shouldn’t do that. These are the community’s children. Let’s let the community take care of its children. Let’s be that village that holds everybody up.”

The James Storehouse village extends beyond the building. To improve the outcomes for foster children who age out of the system, Bigler’s outreach is partnering with Open Table to connect them with adults who will offer friendship and mentoring.

The Open Table groups are six to eight adults who commit to meet one hour a week for a year with someone about to age out of the foster care program. Usually, those are 17- and 18-year-olds, though they may be older if they haven’t finished high school or a GED program. Many foster children leave the system ill-prepared for adult life.

“The outlook for them is just dismal,” said Glenn Rountree, of West Monroe, who recruits and coordinates Open Table groups for James Storehouse. “For most of them, they’re immediately homeless. They have high rates of incarceration. Seventy percent of all females by age 21 end up pregnant. I could just go on and on.

“But one of the factors that they found for youth success is relationships with caring adults through the entire transition process and beyond, and that’s exactly what Open Table does. We provide that. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Open Table reports that 95 percent of its former foster care children maintain those relationships after the year ends, and a similar percentage are self-sufficient or nearly so, Bigler said.

“Not everybody can be a foster parent, but everybody can do something,” Edwards said.