Friday, June 7, 2013

Rockin’ Grannies

Do you remember how safe and loved you felt wrapped in your grandma’s arms? Do you remember her hearty laugh? Her gentleness? Her ever-handy hankie, ready to wipe a tear or a runny nose at a moment’s notice?

Everybody needs a grandma like that in their lives, and at Child Saving Institute we’re so fortunate to have three!

Grandma Lula
For the past eight years, “Grandma Lula” Grunnells, 76, has risen early Monday through Thursday, rain or shine, to board a bus in order to be at Child Saving Institute’s Early Childhood Education Center by 7:30 a.m. Donning a multi-colored smock and wearing a bright scarf tied around her now-gray hair, she settles into the rocking chair in the Pennie multi-age room and opens her arms wide, indicating her lap is open for business.

“Some people think I’m crazy,” she observes with a deep chuckle. “But my husband has passed away and I’m all by myself in that big house. The babies motivate me to get up and come out here. They bring something out in me. And the babies love me—because they tell me so!”

“Some of these babies need a grandma in their lives—you can tell,” she adds, her tone turning serious. “There’s just something missing. I think I play the role they need by huggin’ and lovin’ on them. We’re like a comfort blanket to them. I think each and every child should have a grandmother.”

Grandma Johnnie
Lula came to Child Saving Institute through the Foster Grandparent Program operated by Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. She is joined in her ENOA work by fellow Foster Grandma Johnnie Hawkins, 78, in the Henry Toddler Room. “Grandma Johnnie” loves babies Tuesday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. A retired food service worker, Johnnie is the mother of four, grandmother of eight, and great grandmother of nine. She says rising every morning to come to the childcare center gives her day special purpose.

Once a week, 77-year-old Myrtle Weible walks to the agency from her nearby home. She spends Friday mornings rocking, reading and wrangling toddlers. When asked why she does it, “Grandma Myrt” replies, “I love the kids, and I hope I can bring some pleasure and joy to their lives.”

Grandma Myrt
“I think these amazing women bring that extra ounce of nurturing that we pride ourselves on,” says Early Childhood Director Dalhia Lloyd. “Along with the teachers, they build real, meaningful relationships with the kids.”

She shared the story of a 4-year-old, now in Pre-K, who starts each day by first running in to greet Grandma Lula with a hug—as she’s done every morning since infancy. “Our kids really depend on the consistent care the grandmas provide. They are the loving ‘heart’ of our center.”

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Four Sisters Find a Forever Home

Once upon a time, not long ago, four lovely little princesses found themselves in need of a home of their very own. They didn’t care what it looked like. It could be a hollow log, a cottage in the woods, or even a castle (okay, a castle would be awesome). But what they really, really wanted was a mommy and daddy to love and cherish them, and keep them safe from the neglect and abuse they’d experienced in their short lives. 

With the help of the gentle staff at Child Saving Institute, they were able to find the perfect parents and the perfect home. The young sisters, all uniquely beautiful and talented, met a kind and caring couple—Kiely and Kevin. They all fell deeply in love, creating the tightest, most impenetrable bond possible—family.

As the girls sit nearby at a table, busy with the special, messy treat of colorful playdough, Kiely Hermeling, a middle school vocal music teacher, and her husband, Kevin, a high school math and finance teacher, shared the “rags to riches” tale of becoming parents of four little girls nearly overnight. Parenting, in itself, wasn’t a new experience for the couple—they had already been foster parents to eight children, including two groups of three very young children. But the couple had yet to meet the “one.” Literally, the one. They hoped to adopt a baby some day and had decided to take a single placement to get a feel for what it would be like to parent one child at a time.

Instead of one child, four little sisters, then ages 1, 2, 3 and 4 (the biggest gap is 13 months; the shortest, 10 months) wiggled and giggled their way into their hearts. They arrived one weekend in late June of 2010 and their adoption was finalized on November 19, 2011, on National Adoption Day. Kevin describes that first weekend: “Four girls? I had the attitude, okay, we’ll try this, but I don’t think it’s going to work. What do I know about little girls?”

“Like with all our foster kids, we jumped in with our whole hearts,” Kiely recalls. “We didn’t know if it was going to be 10 days or forever…but we were sure hoping.”

It has been a slow and steady process to develop the bond of trust after the abuse and neglect the girls had experienced, but with the support of their big close-knit family, loving friends and the caring staff at Child Saving Institute, Kiely says they’ve all come “miles and miles.” 

“We didn’t get to turn the first child into a guinea pig and learn from it so we could use our experience on the next one. We went from zero to four overnight,” Kevin says. “And the successes and growth has been that much sweeter, because it came with its own set of challenges,” Kiely adds. “Plus they’re all so unique with their own personalities and different strengths. It’s so rewarding to watch that develop and see them heal and grow.”

Leading up to the big adoption day, the girls kept a “countdown calendar,” eagerly crossing off each day until they were a legal family. Then, this past summer, the family (and both grandmas) took a much-anticipated eight-day adoption celebration trip to Disney World. While there, each girl picked out her own special ball gown—which they gleefully showed off, complete with twirls.

“Everyone says the girls are so lucky, but we’re the ones who are blessed,” Kiely says softly. “You have to be patient. The bond, the trust, doesn’t happen overnight, but it does come, and the daily blessings of having children in your home are right there from the beginning.”

The Hermelings recently renewed their foster license and are open to more children. “We need to make sure the girls are healed before we adopt, but we will continue to foster,” Kiely says. 

Are there little princes in their future? Kevin thinks so. “I’m thinking we need to adopt one to four boys…just to even it out a bit.”

Thursday, April 11, 2013

And Then There Were Five...

Sheila and Mike Pyle had a nice life. Good jobs, a lovely home, lots of friends and a supportive family. Then their lives went from good to great when they received a special gift. No, they didn’t win the jackpot; they received a windfall in the form of three little kids.

No more quiet, no more sleeping in, no more spontaneously going to see a movie. The Pyle’s new life revolves around giggles and tears, sticky hugs, bath toys in the tub, crayon drawings and love. Oh, so much love.

The couple had been considering the foster-to-adopt route to parenthood and contacted Child Saving Institute. They began taking the 10-week foster parenting course in January 2010. By May they were ready to welcome one or two children into their home. “We were licensed for three, but we didn’t really think we were ready for three,” Sheila recalls. After turning down four or five calls requesting placement for three siblings, Sheila’s mom urged her, upon the next call, to “just go meet the children.”

Despite their concerns, Sheila and Mike did just that. A few days later they received a request for placement—for yet another group of three. They arranged to meet the kids, who were placed in two different foster homes. Kyla, then 4, and Solomon, 14 months, were placed together in one home, and baby Shay, 4 months, was in another. When they entered the first home, Solomon, who wasn’t walking yet, crawled to Mike and lifted his arms. He then sat on Mike’s lap the entire visit while the couple played on the floor with Kyla.

When they left, they KNEW. Even before driving to Elkhorn to meet the infant, they were ready to go back in the house and bring the kids home. Meeting Shay clinched the deal. The baby had a flat spot on his head and it was obvious he had suffered poor nutrition and neglect. They wanted all three kids with them as soon as possible.

The next day the Pyles contacted Child Saving Institute and said they wanted to foster the children. Still completing the licensing process, the couple couldn’t officially welcome the kids to their home yet, but they could invite them for pre-placement weekend visits. On a Friday night in mid-May, all three of the children started spending their weekends at the Pyles for six weeks. On that very first night, as Sheila tucked Kyla into her bed, the little girl looked up at Sheila and said quietly, “My Mommy and Daddy hurt me.” Sheila was taken aback, but without skipping a beat, she pointed at the decorative angels hanging on the wall and responded, “Nothing is going to hurt you here. You are safe with us.”

They had a wonderful time in those two days together, followed by five more consecutive weekends that flew by much too quickly. When the Pyles received notification their licensing was complete, Sheila and Mike gathered up the kids the same day. Sheila especially wanted to let Kyla know that when she came home with them, she would get to stay. “She had been through so much in her short life,” Sheila says. “Not only was she herself abused, but I know she was doing everything she could to protect and care for her baby brothers.”

Less than a year after the children came to live with Sheila and Mike (they took placement June 30 and adopted April 4), they became a legal family. The changes to the children’s demeanor, health and happiness have been dramatic. Solomon, who was not walking when they first met, attended physical therapy and went from a sad little boy to a joyful toddler within five weeks. Shay overcame his early health issues and is celebrating new milestones every day. Kyla, who went from being a withdrawn little girl whose speech was difficult to understand, is now an enthusiastic kindergartner who loves making new friends and sharing what she’s learning with her family. “It’s amazing how much a child can change with just the right environment,” Sheila observes. “Just by giving a child lots of love, building their trust and helping them feel safe, you make such a big difference in their lives.”

To honor the special occasion, the couple hosted a “Family Celebration Day,” inviting friends and family to meet the Pyle kids. “People who met our children before they were placed in our home have a hard time believing the children they see now are the same ones. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

“Everyone says, ‘Oh, think how much you’re helping those poor kids,’” Sheila continues, tears welling up in her eyes. “But the truth is they made our lives better. They came to live with us and they changed our lives. They are the gift to us—the gift of loving children. Just seeing the changes that a strong, loving foster home can make in a child’s life is incredible. It’s so rewarding to see the changes you can make with love and guidance. When we went into this, we didn’t really know how it was all going to pan out. We just knew we were committed to the process—whether it was a short placement or a long placement. It just worked out the way it did. It was meant to be.” 

Sheila now wishes they had a bigger house so they could continue to be foster parents. “There will be more foster kids if we win the lottery,” she says with a grin.

Sounds like they already did.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Joy of Shoe Shopping

A few weeks ago, just before the holidays, a 14-year-old arrived at our emergency shelter with all of her worldly possessions—a bible, a notebook, a hairbrush, and the clothes on her back.

Imagine her blatant, unabashed joy to be taken shopping to Sports Authority to pick out her very own pair of brand new sneakers! Multiply that elation by 12—the number of youth living in Child Saving Institute’s Emergency Shelter—and you may have to sit down and pull out a tissue at the sight of such happiness.

A pair of shoes finds a home with a grateful teen

Who delivered this wonderful holiday surprise? None other than our favorite Ironman supporter, Adam “A.J.” Fitzhenry, and his mom, Child Saving Institute volunteer Cathy Fitzhenry. A.J., from Lafayette, La., competes in the grueling Ironman Triathlon (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile marathon run, raced in that order and without a break) and has been tweeting and emailing Child Saving Institute’s shelter youth for many months, encouraging them to have hope and to keep trying.

On December 27, A.J. and Cathy arranged a visit with the kids in the shelter. They did an ice-breaker activity based on the spirit of giving and Cathy read ҆Twas the Night before Christmas. Then A.J. talked about shoes. Really? Shoes?

Yes. Shoes. Here’s what he told the kids:

“Your feet can take you places. My feet (I hope) will take me to the Ironman World Championships in 2013. My goals are set for this year. I know the times I must achieve to win this race. I’ve been working at it for five years now. I will have to work hard, train, and stick to my plan.

“My feet help me swim, bike and run. My shoes—oh how I love new running shoes! —always make me feel stronger and like I can run faster. I think it comes from when I was little boy. My mom would buy me new gym shoes and say, ‘AJ go try your shoes—see how fast you can run AJ! See how high you can jump!’

“As an athlete, I know now that shoes are important (and yes I still love to get new shoes) but I also know that it’s the belief that I have that takes me farther than my feet and shoes can. I have to believe first in my mind that my feet can help me win a race.

“What do you believe in? What do you want to believe in? Remember, you can never give up on that dream or what you want or desire. My belief is I can make it to the Ironman World championships in Kona.

“I believe that I can reach all my goals if I keep them locked in my mind and think about them every day.

“I believe that I can make the future different and bring more joy into my life. “I believe in YOU, that you, too, can achieve your goals.”

A.J.'s wall of letters, photos and Tweets of encouragement to the Shelter youth

Wow. A pretty powerful message to kids who are struggling to make their way in the foster care system.

After the talk, the youth were split into two groups and A.J. and his mom, along with shelter staff, went shopping and everyone was allowed to choose their own shoes—some for the first time in their lives.

The funding for this special shopping trip came from individuals who responded to A.J.’s “$5 Buck Challenge” and donated $5 a month to Swim Bike Run For Kids, his campaign to encourage others to “take on a personal challenge, and then celebrate your accomplishment by donating $5 to kids in need.”

He could not have chosen a more worthy project—or more grateful recipients. “Most of our kids show up here with very little,” explains Luke Cerveny, director of residential services in the shelter. “Plus, teens grow out of their shoes very quickly, and many of them wear tattered, ill-fitting shoes. They were so excited to bring them back and show them off.”

“It was so overwhelming, I teared up,” adds youth counselor Jenaime Taylor, who accompanied the group on their shopping trip. “They were like little kids in a candy store they were so happy.”

And they are still excited about the shoes. Even 13-year-old Ian, notorious for his ambivalence toward hygiene (“You always know what he had for lunch,” Jenaime jokes) has refused to wear his new sneakers to school lest they become scuffed or muddy.

Thank you, A.J. and Cathy. And thank you to all the folks who are willing to put themselves in the shoes of kids who have so little, but dream of so much more.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Ready to Launch

This story was originally published in our Fall 2012 Newsletter

This year, Child Saving Institute’s Independent Living Skills program has eight students attending college.

It is an unusually high number, no doubt in part due to the Independent Living Skills team’s diligence in getting the kids enrolled and helping them secure housing. However, the students have a challenging road ahead. Statistics show that only a small percentage of youth who “age out” of the foster care system will graduate from college.

Former foster child and new dad, Jake

Josh and Jake’s efforts to attend college are supported and encouraged by Independent Living Specialist Meghan O’Brien who works with these teens and other state wards to help them acquire the skills they will need to succeed in life.

Most 19-year-olds are unprepared for the realities of living on their own—especially those youth who haven’t known consistency, nurturing and compassionate support. Meghan and her fellow specialists teach the youth how to plan and manage their time and money; how to utilize available resources and complete applications to find housing, transportation, and employment; and how to learn to make educated life choices concerning nutrition, healthcare, parenting, and sexual responsibility. Most important, Meghan says, is to teach the young people how to create and maintain appropriate support networks.

“They need to know where to turn for help, and they have to learn to ask for help when they need it. Whether it’s family or individuals with whom you’ve created a family-like relationship, you have to learn to communicate and mend fences and keep working on relationships. I keep telling my kids, you have to keep connections—whether with teachers, family members, coaches, mentors… So when we step out, the attorney steps out, the State steps out, you have a support system to help you make life’s tough choices.”

Josh's Story

When we visited with Josh the last week of August, he was like any other 19-year-old heading off to his first year of college…Almost. Although he was attending freshman orientation and moving into a dorm room, Josh’s journey to college wasn’t typical—but it is typical of many of the youth Child Saving Institute serves. You see, Josh is a survivor. He survived jail, drug addiction and the child welfare system. 

 Josh is taking charge of his life

Josh is attending Metro Community College with help from the $2,500 Christine Parker Memorial Scholarship from the Child Saving Institute Guild. In addition to an art class—he loves to draw and paint—he will also be taking general studies classes. His tattoos peeking out from beneath the sleeves of his t-shirt, Josh shyly confesses he’d like to use his artistic talent to be a tattoo artist himself some day. But that might have to wait until he completes a stint in the army—he also planned to speak to a recruiter later in the week.

Previously a ward of the state, Josh had witnessed a chaotic home life before going to live with a relative while his mother was incarcerated. The trauma and frustration of his situation resulted in his acting out and fighting, a repeated behavior that landed him jail. Last fall, Josh made a conscious effort to make positive changes in his life. He was determined to get out of the system and start making better choices—a decision that resulted in his quitting drugs, tapping into his spirituality, finding a part-time job last summer, earning his GED and enrolling in college. His hard work paid off. His criminal record was sealed, and he is now able to move forward with a clean slate and the option for a brighter future.

Jake's Story

Rail thin with a mop of dark hair and an engaging grin, you’d never guess Jake is a college freshman—he looks barely old enough to drive. But at 19, he is no longer a ward of the state, his mother is dead, and his dad isn’t in the picture. Like Josh, he is also studying graphic arts at Metro Community College, but the one thing that sets him apart from most of his classmates…this baby-faced teen is a dad.

When Jake was three, his little sister, Sarah, with whom he shared a birthday, died. His mother passed away shortly thereafter. (Jake’s baby, now four months old, is named for his little sister.) The ensuing years found him in and out of foster care, staying in group homes, and living with other relatives. Most unsettling, Jake’s father petitioned the court to re-establish custody when he was 18, but two weeks later kicked his son out after an argument, leaving Jake literally homeless for a few days.

Jake started participating in Child Saving Institute’s Independent Living Skills program in February 2011. He says he appreciates all that he’s learned, and hears Meghan’s voice in his head “all the time” when he’s trying to make choices. “When I grew up, I didn’t get much help from my parents and they weren’t really around to teach me things. Independent Living Skill is kind of like a parental system; they teach you things like cooking, taxes, budgeting and stuff. They teach you how to do things right instead of wrong. ”

“Jake hasn’t had an easy life,” Meghan says. “The first 18 years were really difficult, and the last year has been particularly trying. That’s where we come in.”

Friday, December 7, 2012

First Fostering Experience Leads to New Family for These Three

This story was originally published on November 16, 2012 in The Daily Record.
By Lorraine Boyd

Most 34-year-old single career women still have dreams of one day marrying and having children. 

Amy Muell was no exception, but admits that her career has come first. She works hard all day to help “kiddos” cope with unimaginable challenges as the RSafe 10-14 Project Supervisor at Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. The RSafe Program is dedicated to emotionally healing children, teens and families affected by sexual abuse. 

Amy Muell and her two boys, Ja’Rell (left) and Shomore,
celebrate Shomore’s 10th birthday with a little silliness
Muell was the RSafe Treatment Foster Care coordinator for four years, all of those years concurrent with her current position. She earned her degree in social work from the University of Iowa and a masters in social work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

Two years ago, as a Child Saving Institute foster parent, she took in her first foster child, an eight-year-old African American boy named Shomore who was removed from his abusive home where mental health issues were a significant factor. 

After a while, Shomore’s older brother Ja’Rell, needed an emergency removal from his foster home. “It was just supposed to be for a week, so I said okay,” Amy said. “He was 13 and had never lived with his sibling. He didn’t want to leave.” So, he never left. 

 “I told him I just knew when he walked in, ‘You have so much sunshine in your heart, you bring sunshine to mine.’” 

The next two years have not been without their challenges. “The 10-year-old broke a window recently.” Amy paused. “He threw a Bible at it! I told him to stop tapping on it, and he threw a Bible at it.” She laughed at the irony. 

“When I took Shomore in, I just wanted to try out foster care. Now, they’re my life. I wouldn’t want it any other way.” 

Adoption Day 

Tomorrow is National Adoption Day and the two boys will become Amy’s sons in Judge Christopher Kelly’s courtroom. They both have decided to take Amy’s middle name as their middle names: Joy. “Because we bring joy to each others lives.” 

While they love Amy, the boys still mourn the loss of their family, which includes five other siblings. When the boys’ mother’s parental rights were terminated, Amy persuaded her to try to visit them or to make a video because it would mean a lot to them. 

Despite her own difficulties, she did make that video recently, telling them “It’s okay to love Amy. Let her take care of you.” 

“It meant so much to them,” Amy said, “and it took a lot of courage for her to do that.” 

Amy’s house seems it would be full enough with two teenage boys in it. But there are also two Schnauzer-mix dogs in the mix, and once a week, two of her boys’ siblings who are closest in age to them, a boy and a girl, come over to spend the day. “They all love it.” Those two children are also in foster care, as are the other children in the family. 

Her pride in the boys is evident. Shomore is a student at Pawnee Elementary School, and Ja’Rell has just transferred to Papillion-La Vista High School this year, as a sophomore. He has spent the last week trying out for the basketball team (he made the team at Benson last year as a freshman). The 15-year-old is 6’2".

“He’s doing just great in his new school. It’s all about caring teachers. He knows what he needs to do to succeed.” 

Amy was working at home the evening we visited. She said the boys get that she has a career, but they want her to themselves when she gets home, so they’re not always happy with her “homework.” It’s a balance. 

As Amy says about the picture on her Facebook page, “My boys.” Indeed. 

A Big Day 

Foster and adoptive parents come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages. They all have one thing in common. They are willing to take in kids who need them and give them love and a chance at a successful life.

Tomorrow, more than 70 kids will become members of their “forever homes,” the biggest number yet in Omaha’s 13 years celebrating National Adoption Day. 

After opening remarks at 8:30 a.m., the Douglas County Juvenile Court judges will begin the joyous process of finalizing adoptions, lots of adoptions. While families are waiting, they will enjoy a magician, face painting, a balloon artist, professional family photos, desserts, flowers for the parents, and following the adoptions, a chili feed at Children’s Museum, hosted by Child Saving Institute. A grant from the Gilbert M. and Martha H. Hitchcock Foundation, along with other sponsors, is making the celebration possible.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

He swims, bikes, runs (and tweets) for kids

The tweets started coming in last summer. Slowly at first, and then appearing almost daily—sometimes even multiple times a day. Who was this young athlete so passionately encouraging Child Saving Institute's kids to have hope? He is Adam “A.J.” Fitzhenry, 28, a paramedic and EMT from Lafayette, La., who also happens to compete in one of the world’s most grueling competitive sports— the Ironman Triathlon. 

RETWEET if you want the kids under the care of @ChildSaving to know you care about them and are praying for them! DO IT FOR THE KIDS! 

The Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and a marathon 26.2-mile run, raced in that order and without a break. In order to compete at this level, A.J. follows a strict regimen, training 3 to 8 hours a day. 

A.J. admits he wasn’t always such an avid athlete. After gaining weight in college, he decided to get in shape and made it his goal to run a marathon. He started training—slowly at first, then realized he enjoyed long-distance running. After running his first marathon, he was hooked, and was ready to explore other endurance sports. While on a business trip to Louisiana, he met Terry Butts, a world-renowned strength and endurance trainer. A.J. was so impressed with the coach, he moved to Louisiana—a move that also offered milder weather allowing for a longer training season. 

I’m proud to swim bike run for the foster kids @ChildSaving! They motivate me, inspire me and challenge me. DO IT FOR THE KIDS!

A.J. not only tweets for the foster kids, he also raises money for Child Saving Institute's programs by encouraging his triathlete colleagues and Facebook friends to give up a coffee and give $5 to the kids on Fridays. It is an idea that came from his mother, Cathy Fitzhenry, who, with A.J.’s dad, had served as a CSI mentor and admired the agency’s work. 

Shout Out Friday for the foster kids @ChildSaving. Donate $5 today and show them you care about them!

“My grandfather was a foster kid in Chicago,” A.J. notes, explaining his family’s passion for at-risk kids. “He was one of the biggest role models of my life. He lived the American Dream—coming from nothing and turning it into a success story. Through his example and my mother’s mentoring work, I know we all need help and support in our lives—especially the kids. 

Courage from a foster kid doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is simply their quiet voice saying—I’ll keep going and hoping. @ChildSaving 

“And working for their behalf helps me, too. A lot of time you can get frustrated, get down, when you put so much work into the training and then not get the results you’d like. But then I think about the kids living in the shelter, and I step back and think, ‘At the end of the day, I’m really fortunate. I have it good.’ I take a breath of fresh air and think about the kids and they help me keep it all in perspective.”

To follow A.J. on Twitter, go to