As I navigated the maze of cubicles hung with beautiful quilts, I donned a black apron embroidered with “Office Mom” in purple.
Jennifer Thomason, Volunteer Coordinator, led me to the lunch room of DSHS’s Children’s Administration, and introduced me to three waiting children.
The oldest, a teenage girl, was on the couch reading a book of poetry she had recently checked out from the library. The two younger kids were quietly coloring. I sat at the table and casually engaged the three siblings in conversation while I colored. We talked about school, poetry and friends.
We didn’t talk about why they were there.
All three kids were smart, friendly and polite. Under different circumstances, I would never know that their lives had been turned upside down that morning when they were taken away from their mom due to neglect or abuse. It was my first day volunteering for the Office Moms and Dads program and meeting kids entering the foster system.
I love kids. I am a mom, I usually have a “bonus kid” (or three) running around the house, and I try to keep an eye out for ways to help local children in need. Last year, when a friend told me about the Office Moms and Dads (OMD) program, I knew it would be a great fit for me.
The Wenatchee branch of the OMD program was introduced in 2015 and currently has 24 approved (but only six to seven active) volunteers who are called in to care for, feed and entertain children who have recently been removed from their homes.
Prior to the program, children entering the foster care system would often sit and wait for hours as social workers made calls in an attempt to find a relative or foster family who could house them.
They were uprooted from unstable or abusive homes and then subjected to hearing rejection after rejection. They had no family or friends to comfort them, and spent time with as many as 10 different social workers while they were being placed.
The OMD program, a volunteer-based nonprofit, was created to ease this transition, and comfort the children during a scary, vulnerable time. “The office parent is a neutral party who is there to distract the kids from their recent traumas and provide consistency. This helps children connect and feel more secure and stable,” said program coordinator Jennifer.
The program also increases productivity. “It frees up social workers to find placements, locate relatives, investigate cases, get court paperwork completed and all the other many steps included in placing a child in out-of-home care,” said Jennifer.
Office Parents volunteer on an on-call basis. An email or text will go out to the group asking, “We have a 3-year-old coming in, is anyone available to watch her for a couple hours?” Volunteers have the choice of responding and can come in for 30 minutes to eight hours, depending on the need and their availability.
Each of my experiences as an Office Mom has been different.
The children who are brought in are in the midst of a traumatic event. Their reactions, coping mechanisms, personalities and abilities run the gamut. They can be disruptive or quiet, heartbroken or stoic, have special needs or not, but one thing is constant — they always take a shoehorn to my heart and stretch it out one size larger.
Often, kids come in without any belongings, or have what little they own stuffed in a plastic garbage bag. While they are with an Office Parent, waiting to be placed, each child is given a duffel bag filled with brand new, age- and gender-appropriate toys, books, a stuffed animal, school supplies, personal toiletries, a soft blanket and clothing — all theirs to keep — thanks to the national nonprofit My Stuff Bag, and local community members.
Each child also gets to pick out, and take home, one of the beautiful hand-sewn quilts from Project Linus that are hung on display throughout the office. The duffel bags and quilts are fun distractions for the kids, and I adore watching their faces light up as they inspect their new treasures.
Office Parents are not to stay in contact with, or know the circumstances of the children they meet, unless it’s imperative to their care. While there, our only goals are to show the kids that they matter and are loved, and to allow the social workers to focus on finding them a safe and loving home.
Being an OMD volunteer requires patience, empathy and the ability to bear witness to some heartbreaking family situations. The reward of seeing a child’s body language relax, a smile emerge through tears, or fear give way to excitement while playing a board game, makes it all worth it.
These kids deserve the love and care of their community.
My husband is still a little nervous that I’m going to come home with a couple of extra kids, like some sort of kid collector. His fears might be valid, but for now, the Office Moms and Dads program is the perfect fit for me.
How to help
Office Moms and Dads is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. Volunteers interested in joining the OMD program must complete an hour and a half training course, a background check and a volunteer packet.
For more information, or other ways to help the foster community, contact Jennifer Thomason at 665-5341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Molly Steere
Molly Steere is a local freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast who can play a mean game of Hungry Hungry Hippo when the opportunity presents itself.