In a room of 30 to 40 church pastors and representatives at Ocala Police Department’s training auditorium on Thursday, Natalie French exemplified some of the endless needs and struggles Marion County families are facing.
Using retired OPD Maj. Tara Woods in a simulation, French handed Woods two baby dolls to represent her children, followed by a bag of pasta, laundry detergent, a plunger, jumper cables, schoolwork and a handful of bills to represent a mother’s many obligations.
The simulation was part of a presentation on CarePortal, a national program coming to Marion County, to show how the online portal will connect families and children in the welfare system to church members who can help fill their needs.
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Once Woods’ hands were full, French, who is CarePortal’s regional manager in Florida circuits, asked pastors to read from slips of paper she had distributed.
One by one, the pastors relieved her responsibilities, whether by offering baby clothes, cookbooks for affordable meals or financial fitness lessons from their hypothetical congregations, until her hands were free to take care of the babies again, “which is what we should all have the freedom to do,” French said.
Ocala churches will join thousands helping kids across the country
French, who has fostered 16 children herself, described CarePortal as an online “alert system” that notifies the churches about existing needs in the community, whether a crib, car seat or groceries.
Case workers in the child welfare system submit the needs, which show up for the churches, on behalf of families. The churches can then ask their members if they are able to fulfill a specific need.
In addition to physical items, the needs can also be services like tutoring, mentoring, transportation and babysitting, and even foster care and adoption, according to CarePortal’s website.
“I’ve been so excited about this because I honestly believe this is the greatest opportunity we’ve had in Marion County to look out for the welfare of our children, our families and our church members that I’ve seen in over 20 years,” Scott Hackmyer, who is helping implement the program, told pastors.
Over 3,500 churches are registered across the country, and over 134,000 children have been served, French said. Over $45.6 million in economic impact has been taken off of families and welfare organizations through CarePortal, which was created in 2015.
Child welfare organization Kids Central will pilot the program
Kids Central, Inc., an organization that facilitates adoption, fostering and other family programs across Florida’s 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Marion County, will pilot the program as the entity submitting the needs.
“If it’s a family that’s in child welfare and they’re barely hanging on (and) it threatens maybe the child or children being removed from the home, wouldn’t you want to help so that that doesn’t have to happen?” Kids Central Supervisor of Family Resource Centers Shawanna Felton asked.
Felton said they can oversee more than 1,600 children a month between foster placements, removals, adoptions, relative care giving and other scenarios across Marion, Hernando, Citrus, Lake and Sumter counties.
“When you take the community of pastors and you connect them with child welfare, that is so impactful,” she said, calling the decision to pilot the program a “no-brainer.”
Other organizations like schools or Guardian ad Litem could also join in the future if desired.
Stephanie Gavin, who is the Big Brothers Big Sisters Marion County program coordinator, was previously a CarePortal liaison for her church, Rock Faith Center, in El Paso, Texas.
“I saw firsthand the impact that the CarePortal made on these families, and I would say to you as pastors, as any other entity, if you want to extend your reach, if you want to be of more service, I would urge you to get involved with the CarePortal,” she said. “Singlehandedly, one church has only so much reach, but when we come together, we can reach more, we can do more and we can serve more families, and we can meet more needs.”
Many churches and pastors are already onboard
Many of the pastors had already started going online to sign up before the meeting ended.
OPD Chaplain Gene Kenney, who also represented Village View Community Church, offered a personal example of how “churches can make a difference one child at a time.”
“Over 20 years ago, I adopted a little girl through Kids Central,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t hear the end stories, but I was one of those people who didn’t have a crib, didn’t have a car seat, and when the judge gave us custody of the little girl, my church got involved. All of a sudden, there’s people coming, knocking on the door: ‘I’ve got a car seat.’ ‘Do you have a crib?’ “
Other pastors agreed that CarePortal will be a good way to help children upstream to keep them in school and prevent them from getting into trouble or violence. It may also later compel them to join the church that helped them out.
“I think that this has the potential to impact the lives of children and families in our community in a way that we have not been able to do in the past, and I think with all of the folks in this room, we’re going to have a much broader reach than we can individually, and it will mean so much in the lives of our children,” the Rev. Dr. Jerone Gamble of Mount Canaan Missionary Baptist Church said.
Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at [email protected]