Scottsdale couple shepherds flock in foster care

Mark Wheeler poses with his wife, Laurie, in front of imagery displaying their parish’s theme. It’s also symbolic of their “For the Love of Kids Ministry.” Volunteers regularly visit group foster homes providing genuine companionship.
(Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

In a way, Mark and Laurie Wheeler are still offering in-home foster care support — just not from their home at the moment.

Instead, they visit a local group home once a week. It’s filled with 12- to 18-year-old girls in the foster care system, up to 10 of them in fact, who Mark said, “are hungry for everything.”

Sure, they have the basics of food and shelter provided and even a case worker to update them on their legal situation, but the girls long for so much more. Mostly, they yearn for genuine friendship. Some, depending on their background, may benefit from adult mentors.

Either scenario is where the Wheelers step in. So do 25 fellow volunteers from St. Patrick Parish in Scottsdale, including at least a handful of volunteers under the age of 40. Mark said that’s important because the girls really relate to the parent-like figures.

“I’ve met so many kids who have no idea what a true family or a true parent is. It’s so sad they don’t understand that,” Mark said.

His and Laurie’s own experience as foster parents became part of the reason they re-branded their ministerial efforts a couple of years ago. They still treasured their role as nurturers, but temporarily couldn’t do it as foster parents when a young granddaughter moved in. They now call their ministry “For the Love of Kids.” It’s a slight departure from “Foster Care Support Ministry,” but with a similar mission: helping with love in any way they can.

Connect with foster children

May is Foster Care Awareness Month.

Even if you can’t welcome children in foster care to your home, there are ways to help them:

For the Love of Kids Ministry
Ministry Blog and Facebook
Join its first Golf Tournament May 1

Foster Care Closet, St. Jerome Parish
Info: Janet at (602) 803-6343

CarePortal
Connects churches to local children, families in
crisis to avoid sending them to foster care.
Info: careportal.org

Furnishing Dignity
Founded by St. Benedict moms to provide basic home necessities with special focus on children aging out
of foster care.
Info: FurnishingDignity.org

Arizona Friends of Foster Care
Founded by a Scottsdale Catholic to provide social, athletic and educational activities for foster children.
Info: affcf.org

Sunshine Residential Homes
Founded by Phoenix Catholics with the aim of turning children in foster care into wholesome citizens.
Info: sunshineresidentialhomes.com

Arizona Helping Hands
Helps foster families including children’s relatives, with basic necessities when a child moves in.
Info: azhelpinghands.org

Tax credit
Info: FosterFriendaz.org

Dropping the term “foster care” erased the natural notion that the ministry was simply a vehicle for foster parent recruitment. Its main mission is actually visiting the teenaged girls in three group homes once a week. A trio of volunteers commit to each visit.

“The attachment that they get to you is huge,” said Mark. He has two young adult children himself, and in a sense, continues to gain more when some of the girls opt to stay connected as adults. Some 90 percent of teens who enter foster care at age 16 or older will age out of the system without returning home or being adopted.

‘Aging out’ of foster care in Arizona (Cronkite News In Focus)

“I prefer the older kids myself. You can talk to them. You can relate. They just want someone to love them and to listen,” Mark said.

He spoke of one girl who is now in her senior year of high school.

“The last time she went to school consistently was seventh grade,” Mark said, noting that children bounce around too much when in foster care. He is helping her attain a GED. After that, the young woman has her heart set on becoming a pharmacist.

“As long as we can keep their excitement up and keep them going, it’s very rewarding,” he said.

A half-day retreat in March helped many of the girls’ self-esteem. It focused on brokenness and how to accept it and move on. It wasn’t faith-based, but the experience did inspire three girls to join St. Patrick’s teen retreat shortly thereafter.

Another side of For the Love of Kids Ministry provides classroom space and on-site daycare during educational training for foster parents. Mark keeps the community connected to foster care issues via the parish blog and social media.

This marks the Wheelers’ fifth year in ministry with community partnerships key to its current success. OCJ Kids, which stands for Opportunity, Community and Justice for Kids, trained St. Patrick volunteers to be able to visit a group foster home. For the Love of Kids Ministry covers just three of the more than 123 group homes in Maricopa County.

That makes Mark Wheeler’s role as St. Patrick’s point person for Arizona’s “CarePortal” even more vital. The system is essentially an ecumenical neighborhood watch pertaining strictly to child welfare. Tucson recently tested the system in Arizona.

“It’s trying to stop the kids from falling into the foster care system,” Mark explained.

He proposed an example: say a family home backs up to an alley. Without a fence or backyard wall, rats moved past a line of trash cans and into the home. The state’s Department of Child Services reports on unsafe living conditions and gives the parents time to make necessary, but costly changes.

The CarePortal point person at each place of worship in that family’s zip code receives an email about the need. The faithful work to connect the family with an affordable way to install a fence. Then the children can remain at their home that has been restored to safety.

St. Patrick will officially join the CarePortal on Mother’s Day.

Requests for assistance can be physical, relational or family needs. One recent request in Tucson sought a single dresser for an aunt-turned-guardian of three nieces and nephews. Two other Tucson requests were to help families in the process of reunifying. They needed a mattress, high chair and other small items.

It’s “every church doing a little,” the CarePortal’s tagline says.

Mark put it another way: it’s “going out and doing what Jesus wanted us to do and that is help people in need.”