Families in Focus: Faith and Foster Care Intersect at Florida Church

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Loving and Serving, Southeast

By Carl Stagner

More often than not, churches have learned they don’t need to reinvent the wheel. In fact, they recognize that, in many cases, the expertise and experience within isn’t sufficient to reach the goal. In the case of the prevalent needs associated with foster care, First Church of God South Venice knows firsthand the power of partnership. Everybody wins when churches, like this Florida congregation, come alongside existing—and effective—community organizations. For First Church of God South Venice, Family Initiative, Inc., represents one such opportunity.

“First Church of God’s involvement with Family Initiative (FI) began on a personal note,” Pastor Ronald Fichtenberg explains, “when Joe and Amber Watson (daughter/son-in-law and First Church of God Family Life pastor) became foster parents and adopted three foster children. Their journey, as well as that of additional church members who were either adopted or were foster families themselves, motivated the congregation to search for ways to support the fostering initiative in our community. Since then, our church has partnered with TWIG (The Way to Inspire and Give), a local organization which provides for the basic necessities of foster families in our community through various initiatives.”

The potential reach of First Church of God is far greater through these partnerships with professionals than it could ever be on their own. The autism services provided by Family Initiative come from a place of expertise; as a result, those who have the heart, but perhaps not the know-how (or the connections), can still be involved in some incredibly important work. God’s people—predisposed (and foreordained) to good works—routinely provide charities and other local organizations with the manual labor necessary to accomplish mutual goals.

Photo: Social skills playgroup, South Venice, Florida.

Pastor Ronald continues, “Our congregation is also a Care Portal participant, a Bridge a Life initiative which serves as an online platform connecting local churches with the needs of vulnerable children and families in partnership with local child welfare agencies. A recent Faith and Community Florida press release indicated that the collaborative effort of faith and community involvement in Florida’s 12th Judicial Circuit (Desoto, Manatee, and Sarasota counties) has resulted in a 60-percent decrease in the number of children entering out-of-home care; the economic impact is huge, but the emotional and spiritual impact is exponentially greater.”

Just imagine the emotional and spiritual impact in the years to come, even spanning future generations! But through it all, the personal aspect of this story provided the foundation and fueling ground for First Church’s influential focus on families and foster care.

“In each instance,” Pastor Ronald explains, “Pastor Joe’s and Amber’s personal journey has provided First Church of God with an invitation towards heightened awareness and greater involvement in supporting families within our community that have specialized needs. During the pandemic, the Watsons participated in a Trust-Based Relational Intervention training, sponsored by Family Initiatives, which enabled them to help their adopted children cope with the new reality of learning from home and the resultant limited interaction with peers. The effectiveness of this training prompted them to volunteer with FI in training other families online. Since then, Pastor Joe’s involvement with FI has evolved to a staff position as a family specialist, offering parent education and support, as well as providing behavioral support for children in foster care.”

Kids Club, another family-oriented ministry of First Church of God South Venice.

Often such support involves assistance with particular needs unique to each child’s growth and development. Autism, for instance, is one area of focus that the church’s partnership covers. A recent “social skills playgroup” activity combined child welfare and autism programs to encourage learning through play. A post by Family Initiative, Inc. on social media noted that their “team used charades, crafts, and reciprocal play to teach the kids how to use good words when they have big feelings, wait for their turn, ask for help and most importantly how to show our friends we care.”

Pastor Ronald recounts Florida’s dealings with Hurricane Ian last year and the minimal damage First Church South Venice suffered. In spite of the damage, the church “opened its facility to Family Initiative in order to provide displaced families without access to public schools a safe space for nurture and learning.”

When asked what prayer resonates on the hearts and minds of First Church of God South Venice, Pastor Ronald’s answer certainly confronts the issues of parents, families, and children involved in foster care.

“Our faith family wants members in our community to know that they are not alone, whatever the struggle,” Pastor Ronald reflects, “and it remains our hope at First Church of God that meeting the practical needs within our community will become a pathway towards wholeness in body, mind, and spirit for individuals and families.”

Learn more about Family Initiative, Inc., at www.fi-florida.org. Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org.

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