The Department of Children, Youth, and Families office in downtown Vancouver has narrow hallways and a lot of closed doors. Big decisions are made in these rooms.
One room, though, is a bit different. It has a couch, rocking chairs, colorful lanterns, a train set, toys and a chalkboard. For the last six years, it’s been the place where volunteers with Office Moms & Dads stay with children as they wait to be put in a foster home.
“When our kids are coming into care, they’ve just undergone trauma. … They don’t know what’s going on, and everything is up in the air and uncertain. Everything they’ve ever known has been ripped from them,” said Sarah Desjarlais, executive director of Office Moms & Dads. “What Office Moms & Dads aims to do is head off that trauma. We want to sit in a place of empathy with these kids and play purposeful games with them.”
Games like I Spy and Simon Says help calm a traumatized child and get them to think critically, not emotionally, Desjarlais said. As Office Moms & Dads provides care and attention, social workers are free to focus on finding appropriate foster placements.
“We want to have in mind when we go to sit with a kid that we’re not just baby-sitting. We’re actually helping to heal a trauma that has occurred,” Desjarlais said.
However important and valued its work may be, the Vancouver-based nonprofit is trying to overcome being known as “the best-kept secret.” Office Moms & Dads wants to get its name out there, build its fundraising prowess and expand to more child welfare offices.
“At the end of the day, we will not be helping children if nobody knows about us. So, we have to be able to spread the word, which takes money,” Desjarlais said.
What started in August 2013 with a phone tree and a handful of volunteers in the Vancouver child welfare office has expanded to about two dozen offices in Washington and Idaho. The goal is to be in every office in Washington and have locations in each region in Idaho.
Office Moms & Dads received a couple of key grants to help it move forward. The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust gave the organization $40,000 in August 2018 to work with Westby Associates, a fundraising and development firm.
Dana Miller, senior program director for grants, said Office Moms & Dads is among the smaller-sized organizations that Murdock Trust assists. The Vancouver-based charitable trust gave grants to 250 organizations last year. Miller said when Office Moms & Dads looked to apply for a grant, Murdock Trust recognized that the organization does commendable work, has an incredible vision and great heart, but it was still in the early development stage.
“In many ways they were already very active and very engaged and productive,” Miller said.
Office Moms & Dads just needed to mature to get to the next level. He said he admires and is rooting for Office Moms & Dads on its journey to becoming a more stable and well-built organization that addresses a specific niche need.
Westby Associates worked with the nonprofit to develop a five-year vision and a plan for financially sustaining the nonprofit into the future, which included setting up a monthly giving program called the Pinky Promise Society. Megan Dixon, an associate with the Vancouver consulting firm that advises nonprofits, said Office Moms & Dads needed infrastructure.
“They’ve come a long way in the last year,” she said. “They now have a really clear view of who they are and where they’re going.”
The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington awarded the nonprofit $25,000 earlier this year to create a scheduling app to help coordinate volunteers.
The app, developed with in-kind work from Vancouver-based software developer Hint, rolled out to volunteers and social workers on Monday. Before the app, a social worker needing help would contact a volunteer coordinator, who would then send numerous text messages to try to find an available volunteer. Now, volunteers can sign up to serve one or more offices depending on where they live, set up blackout dates, and have more control over when they’re contacted about volunteering.
“It’s really an effort to not only streamline operations, but it’s also an effort to make this program more accessible to social workers,” Desjarlais said.
She hopes it helps with recruiting new volunteers, too. There are more than 500 volunteers across all the sites, including about 90 volunteers at the downtown Vancouver child welfare office. The ratio of office moms to office dads is about seven to one.
One type of volunteer it attracts is those interested in becoming foster parents; they can experience interacting with foster children without fully committing.
Becca Curzon was considering becoming a foster mom when she got involved with Office Moms & Dads shortly after it started. Often Curzon didn’t know how long she’d be volunteering. She stayed there as long as needed.
“The office staff was always so grateful and kind,” Curzon said.
Through volunteering, she became more familiar with the child welfare system, and in July 2016 became a licensed foster parent. At one point she became a long-term placement for children she watched through Office Moms & Dads. Those kids have since returned home.
“I have communications with their mom at least three times a week,” Curzon said.
Office Moms & Dads services are called upon when a child is removed from their home or they’re displaced from their current foster home and need to be moved to another one. Last year in Washington, 6,071 children were removed from their parents’ care, according to the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. (The agency didn’t have data on placement disruptions.)
Debra Johnson, agency spokeswoman, said Office Moms & Dads isn’t widely used in all of the state’s child welfare offices, but the agency is interested in working more with the nonprofit. Volunteers primarily work with infants, she said.
Office Moms & Dads served about 650 children last year, providing 1,236 hours of care.
“If we can get community buy-in from every single one of our sites all over Washington and Idaho, think of the impact,” Desjarlais said. “Children deserve a nurturing space when they’re waiting for foster care.”