You Won't Believe Your Eyes: Community First! Village (Part 1)

When Jen Hatmaker says, “You won’t believe your eyes,” I tend to pay attention.

For those of you who don’t know who Jen Hatmaker is, she’s an author, speaker, and podcaster, who has been leading me from afar for about a decade. I respect the way she lives in the world as she aims to follow Jesus, and I’m continually grateful for the impact she’s made on my life.

But this particular time, she didn’t just say some words online or in a book. This time, I was actually chatting with her in person, at her home.

Let me start at the beginning.

Dustin and I are part of a group called the Legacy Collective. It’s a unique group of givers who pool their money together through ongoing monthly contributions. Then, together, we decide how to distribute those funds by giving grants to nonprofits that are working to help make lasting change all throughout the United States and around the globe.

Every year, the founders, Jen and Brandon Hatmaker, invite the givers to their home to be part of an annual weekend together. We celebrate the good that is happening through these organizations and communities, and we even get to hear from some of them directly. 

So last May, we travelled to Austin, Texas, for the Legacy Collective weekend. We spent Friday night with the Hatmakers and others from the collective, chatting about life and hearing stories about their cities and the nonprofits they’re connected to.

As the night came to a close and we were saying our goodbyes, Jen asked us if we were going on the tour the next day of Community First! Village, an Austin based non-profit that our collective had given a grant to a couple of times before. We told her we were, and she was obviously incredibly excited.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

I had already been looking forward to the tour, but now I was really excited.

I’d heard about the Village before when Jen had mentioned it online. It’s a community designed to come alongside people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness, raising them up off the streets of Austin. I’d even read part of the book that the founder, Alan Graham, had written about the Village.

I knew the basics. Five businessmen – who were deeply impacted on a spiritual retreat – came together to start feeding people in Austin who were living on the streets, especially under the bridge. An organization was born – Mobile Loaves and Fishes – with food trucks serving daily meals all over the city. Along the way, a sixth person joined the founding team, a man who himself had been homeless. He added much needed perspective, experience, and heart, and he helped shape the organization’s trajectory.

After several years of feeding people, they began taking steps toward housing people that weren’t able to be housed through the other organizations in the city. MLF started by purchasing one RV for one person they knew, and the pattern continued from there. Soon they realized that they wanted to do more. 

As they listened to stories and learned about the causes of homelessness, they began to believe that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a “profound, catastrophic loss of family.” So they embarked on a journey to find a solution that could actually address this deep need. This reorientation became the foundation for Community First! Village where the undergirding belief remains, “Housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will.” 

So, on that slightly chilly Saturday afternoon, Dustin and I headed out to see what this unique community was truly like. 

We pulled into a small parking lot and came up on the Community Inn lined with several tiny homes available for rent and a beautiful, outdoor amphitheater. The place was pristine. Everything was maintained so well, and I immediately felt welcome.

Our guide, Daryl, met us at the front of the Village with his genuine smile and enthusiastic presence. He walked us through phase one of this beautiful neighborhood lined with nearly 200 tiny homes and RVs, a market and community garden, a health clinic and outdoor kitchens. We saw the Community First! Car Care, the Art House, and Forge.

We weaved up and down the roads, passing by neighbors that Daryl waved to and chatted with along the way. And we listened to Daryl’s story. He’d volunteered at the Village a few years prior, helping build some of the tiny homes for residents to move into and call their own. And as he spent time at the Village, he was drawn into the culture of love and belonging. He felt seen and known. His eyes filled with tears as he wrapped up his story, and it was clear to me that this place had forever changed the way he thought about, and lived, his life.

So he decided to start the journey to become a “missional” resident.

Missionals are intentional neighbors who choose to live at the Village to come alongside the community and share life with all of the residents. They give and receive love, offering their gifts, experiences, and stories to shape the neighborhood as they too, are being shaped. I was intrigued by Daryl’s story and the individuals and families who had chosen this missional life. It seemed that they were perhaps the most unique aspect of this one-of-a-kind community.

As we listened to the details of how everything had come together, how the neighbors relied on one another, how families who lived there called it the “safest neighborhood they’d ever been part of”, I continued to be amazed.

I couldn’t believe that this Village was funded solely from private donations. They were a place that nearly 220 people already called home, with plans to add on three more, even bigger phases. There was a city bus that came to make sure everyone could make it to other parts of Austin. There was fresh produce, community meals, and a church service that met weekly onsite. Residents could earn a dignified income by helping run micro-businesses that fit their skill sets.

This neighborhood seemed to be the best of what we knew of permanent supportive housing solutions, but it was also filled with values for autonomy and dignity that were undeniable. There was a spirit of genuine hospitality that permeated every nook and cranny. We had just walked the grounds of something incredibly special – a village that was clearly built on community and Jesus and love.

As we made our way back to the front of the neighborhood, the rest of our tour group departed, and Dustin chatted with Daryl for a little longer, asking lots of questions. But I was distracted.

Jen was right. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And I couldn’t deny that something in my heart seemed to have shifted.

As I stood there waiting, I felt the presence of God in a way that’s only happened a few times in my life. It was so evident yet so peaceful – like a small voice that won’t be denied or silenced. The voice was simply offering something, something that I didn’t even know I’d been longing to have.

“Here it is,” the Spirit seemed to whisper. “What do you think?”

“It’s beautiful,” I responded. “You love it, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she whispered back. “Do you want to be a part of it?”

Then, all at once, I realized the agency I have in my own life. The God I aim to follow is so gentle and kind. There was no pressure or even persuasion. Just a peaceful invitation to join him where he was already working.

Of course, he was working back home too, right in the middle of the church we love and the people we were serving there. He was working in the Peoria foster care system that I had dreams of continuing to support, and he was working in the friendships that we had formed and the family that was nearby.

God had sustained us through so many seasons of trial and difficulty over the last six years that we’d made our home in Peoria. We had finally found a rhythm we were loving and thriving in.

Could this really be the time to consider such an invitation?

And yet, the pull was undeniable. I thought about the invitation again and wondered what a response could mean. What we would gain and what we would lose.

I looked at Dustin and wondered what he was thinking, though I could tell that his wheels were turning and his heart had been stirred. When you’re with someone for nearly 17 years, you start to learn the signals.

We got back to the car.

“What do you think?” I said.

“It’s amazing,” Dustin responded. “I think we should come back and learn more. Maybe do something like this in Peoria.”

“I think we should move here,” I said, and I burst into tears, overwhelmed but in the best of ways.

We talked and talked, for hours the next day, and into the following days.

“Let’s contact them in a month,” Dustin says.

“That sounds good,” I replied.

We pondered and prayed. And waited. We looked at RVs online and had conversations about what this type of decision would mean.

And we also kept moving forward, living the life we currently love.

But every single night, when I was getting ready to fall asleep, I couldn’t deny the invitation’s pull.

“Do you want to be a part of it?” rang over and over again in my head.

It was hard to imagine an answer other than, “Yes.”

Foster Care & Footed Pajamas

It’s 14 degrees outside as I write this, which is twenty degrees warmer than this morning when I was celebrating Valentine’s Day at our dining room table with Dustin and our girls.

It was a quick, fun morning, and while I wished I could stay home and avoid the cold, I was looking forward to coming into work. I reminded the girls we’d have a special dinner tonight to finish up our celebrations.

“What is it?” they asked.

“You’ll see!” I said as I hurried out the door. Truthfully, I’ve been looking forward to homemade pizza with heart-shaped pepperoni all week.

I got to work and had a busy morning, but this afternoon, I decided to check on our foster parent resource closet. I wanted to see what clothing sizes we need for kiddos who come into care with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.

“All of the sizes,” I quickly realized as I straightened up the few items that were left on the shelves.

As I refolded and relabeled a couple of sweatshirts, I noticed one particular pair of really snuggly pajamas. The kind with the feet and one-long zipper. My girls always insist these won’t be a problem in the middle of the night when they’re groggy and making their way to the bathroom. But knowing my younger daughter, I tend to imagine otherwise. So, much to their dismay, I usually opt for buying them two-piece pajamas.

These cozy footed pajamas really did look perfect for the bitter cold day we were having. And as I grabbed them to check their size and put them in the best spot on the shelf, I realized they were just a little bigger than what my 8 & 9 year old daughters wear – a size 10. The design was super cute – pink with polka dots featuring a cute cartoon-like dog that lots of elementary girls would probably love wearing.

I wondered which little girl would end up with them. Which little girl who was leaving her home at a moment’s notice would wear those pajamas as she climbed into an unfamiliar bed on her first night away from mom or dad.

I wondered how difficult it would be for our licensing team to find a placement for her. Would we have an available family who was willing to welcome a little girl who was most likely 9 or 10 years old? All of our homes are pretty full right now, not to mention the fact that in child welfare, 9 or 10 years old is considered an “older child”. 

But when I looked at those pink polka dot footie pajamas, I didn’t picture an “older child”. I pictured my girls, still young and playful, snuggled up in their bunk beds, surrounded by their favorite stuffed animals.

I pictured them happy and chatty, asking for their bedtime song and for Dustin to pat their backs. I pictured them settled and cherished and loved.

I thought about our good days together over these last almost five years. So many special days like today filled with laughter, small gifts, and over-the-top food. And I thought about our rough days – the ones filled with tears and big feelings and my expectations that are probably too high for everyone.

And then I said a short prayer while I held those pajamas. Nothing major. Just a silent one asking God to be tangibly near to the little girl that will wear those pajamas.

When I pray those types of prayers, I guess what I really mean is, “God, will you move in the hearts of the foster parents that this particular little girl needs. Will you help them and strengthen them and give them the courage to say yes? Will you help that sweet girl who is walking through some kind of difficulty right now to know that she is loved, even when life around her might be a mess? And somehow, can these pajamas be a tiny reminder to her that she is loved and cared for, not just by the family that welcomes her in, but by the God who created her? And will you help me in all those same ways?”

I guess it isn’t a simple prayer after all.

Foster care isn’t simple. Moving homes isn’t simple. Changing families isn’t simple.

But you know what is simple? Buying footie pajamas.

So maybe I’ll stop by the store on my way home, and grab a few pairs.

After all, they’re still little, and I’m so lucky to be their mom.

It All Matters

No one that I know has just woken up one day and decided to become a foster parent, which is probably good (it’s definitely not something to be entered into on a whim) but it’s also too bad.

As a foster parent recruiter it would make my job much easier if I just came into the office each morning with a full inbox of emails from people inquiring about the steps to becoming licensed and welcoming a child into their home.

Now, of course, I do get inquiries. And I follow-up with those people as quickly as I can. But even those individuals who are on the other end of the phone asking questions and setting up a time for me to come look at their home, didn’t just wake up that morning and decide to give FamilyCore a call.

They have a story that has led them to that particular moment.

And that story is usually years and sometimes decades long. While these stories are, of course, unique to each person or couple that is taking this step, there’s seems to be a simple common thread: somehow, they’ve caught a glimpse of what foster care is like and think – “I could do that and it would be worth it.”

Sometimes the person has grown up in foster care and now wants to provide for kids who are going through the same experience. Sometimes they’re a teacher or health care professional who works with these families and wants to serve as they aim to reunite. Sometimes they have known a foster parent and have watched that journey unfold. Sometimes they have had difficulty having biological children and are exploring other ways to care for children. Sometimes they had brothers or sisters who joined their family through foster care, and they want to do what their own parents did by opening their home.

Whatever the story is, it’s somehow connected to the very real need that is present and the change that can happen when good people get involved.

It’s at this intersection of dire need and unrelenting hope that I believe my job exists.

As a foster parent recruiter, I fill my days with a variety of tasks. One of the main goals I set for myself is to bring awareness by building connections in our local community.

Sure, I want to find individuals and couples who are willing to welcome children into their home by becoming licensed foster parents. But in order to do that well, in order to find the right people at the right time, I’ve begun to think of myself as first being a part of their story – I’m that lady they heard talk once. I shared about the child welfare statistics in our area or the opportunities to serve or the stories of impact. I posted something on Facebook about foster care and they happened to click on the article to actually read it.

To me, this sharing is one of the building blocks of a successful foster parent recruitment strategy. No one is going to jump in to meet needs that they don’t know exist.

And we don’t just need more foster parents. We need you, with whatever gifts and talents and experiences you bring to the table. 

So I spend some of my time talking about the ways we can show up. Not by jumping in at a level that is beyond our real life capacity, but at one that matches who we are and what we can actually contribute. I believe that if we show up to the invitation, good things will happen.

The needs of the foster care community are vast and varied. This means we can show up in all sorts of ways.

We can show up by making meals or rocking babies or reading stories or organizing a closet or cleaning visiting rooms or offering a listening ear.

We can show up by running a diaper drive or hosting a training session or teaching a teen to cook or advocating in the courtroom. We can show up by baking a dessert or running a powerpoint presentation or putting together a care package or designing an event flier.

And you know what? When we show up, we begin to impact a system that can too often feel impersonal and messy. When we show up we infuse that system with personhood and connection. When we show up, we offer not only our time and our talent, but most importantly, our hearts.

And the best part of all is that things really do change. Sure, systems can be overwhelming and slow moving. But systems are just made up of people who are longing to be noticed, supported, and loved.

So let’s show up. Let’s do what we can with what we have. Let’s believe that things can be different for these families and kids. When we do, good things happen.

Workers feel more appreciated. Parents feel more seen. Kids feel more supported. Foster parents feel more sustained.

All of it matters. All of it.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

My View from the Copy Room

My office is in the copy room at work.

This means that the hustle and bustle is constant. Co-workers are in and out, updating files, printing court reports, making sure their kids’ placements have been properly documented as they’ve moved to yet another home in their foster care journey.

Sometimes they’re chatty. They share about a tough case or celebrate when some kiddos finally find permanency. Sometimes they ask about my girls or our church.

I really enjoy my co-workers. They’re personable and dedicated, and I’m proud to be on their team.

Some days, like today, are a bit different in my office. People seem even busier than normal. They’re still in and out to use the copy machine and printer, but there’s less chatting and more rushing. I notice their quickened strides and tired eyes.

Today, I can almost feel the stress they’re experiencing as they hurry to complete all they have to do, looking forward to a weekend that they’re so desperate to reach.

I can sense overwhelm in the air. I think it lingers just above our third floor happenings everyday, but on particular days, it seems to settle in, descending like a fog.

It’s days like these, when the air is just a little bit thicker, that I assume we can all feel it. This work always matters, but sometimes there’s a deeper sense of the immensity of the job.

Kids have to leave homes at a moment’s notice. New cases come pouring in. Caseloads grow too quickly for anyone to do much more than tread water and hope for the best.

These workers, who buzz around the office, are crucial to the child welfare world and our community at large.

They’re the ones visiting children in their foster homes – once, twice, sometimes three times a month. They’re the ones building rapport with foster parents, getting to know their clients, and coordinating ever-changing schedules. They’re the ones sitting in the hospital waiting room on the weekend when there’s no bed for the teenager who needs to be admitted for their own safety.

They’re the ones showing up to court, thick files in hand. And they’re the ones who sometimes wait hours for the judge to call the case, all the while mentally calculating how many extra hours they’ll now be working this evening to make up for the delay. 

And these workers, who come in and out of my office with exasperated sighs, carry stories. Stories of trauma and abuse. Stories of struggle and pain. Stories of redemption and hope. And stories that haven’t been made quite right. 

It’s no wonder that this job had such turnover. Who could carry it all? The brokenness of this world can be too much at times.

And yet, these case workers, my co-workers, keep showing up. When I arrive back at my desk for my next day of work, there they are.

Back to the mess and the hard. Back to the kids who depend on them to be their advocates. Back to the parents who are working diligently toward reunification. Back to the cases that take years to close. Back to the workload that continually seems to expand.

I’ve never had the honor and burden of doing case work, but I’ve been around long enough to know, this calling is not for the faint of heart. 

So to my friends and co-workers who show up daily, thank you. Your commitment makes our community better, and we’re grateful for the sacrifices you make.

You are seen, and you are loved.

God With Us

During Advent, our family reads daily cards that are beautiful and designed to walk you through the season. There are discussion prompts on the back, some of which encourage you to read a short passage of scripture together, to spend time laughing with one another, or to do an act of kindness for a neighbor or friend.

Some of the activities are more poignant than others, and some days the girls are into it. Other days they’re not quite sure how to respond to such grown up questions about life and faith.

One of the recent cards prompted our family to talk about “promises” that God has given to us. And while I loved the sentiment that God is faithful and trustworthy, which I totally believe, I struggled to come up with specific promises. I mean, I had plenty of verses I could recite that seem like promises from God. God promises – “to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a hope and a future” or that we can “do all things through Christ who strengthens us” or that we can move mountains with “faith like a mustard seed”. And while I think those parts of scripture are all beautiful and that they all matter, those aren’t really the ways that I think about faith right now.

As our girls looked at me from across the table waiting for me to come up with a few promises God has given us, I was honest.

“Well,” I said. “I’m not quite sure how many promises God has made to me. There are lots of times I’ve felt like God spoke to my heart and told me things I should focus on or reminded me that he loves me. But promises? I think maybe the most important promise is the one we think about at Christmas time. Do you remember what Immanuel means?”

Kaylynn replied, “God with us.”

“Exactly. God with us. I think that’s what he promises us. He doesn’t promise us that life will be easy, or that bad things won’t happen, but he promises to always, always be with us. No matter what.”

It’s a simple, yet profound promise. It’s the hope I’ve clung to when life has been difficult, and when I’ve watched friends walk through intense loss and grief. It’s the part of the Christmas story that gets me every single time. “So the word became human, and made his home among us” (John 1:14 NLT).

He made his home among us. Proximity matters for so many reasons.

Being near people is the way we learn and grow. It’s the way we expand our limited perspectives of the world. Relationships are the first step in beginning to understand those who have a different life experience than we do. 

But perhaps proximity also matters because when we are near people, we’re living into the example that’s been set before us. We’re reflecting back our Creator’s image. We’re making our home with others in a world that can too often feel inundated with isolation and loneliness. 

I don’t think this with-ness has a formula or blueprint. I mean, Jesus came to be with us in the most unexpected, most unassuming of ways. He made his home with us as a baby, born to a teenager, yet called, Immanuel – God with us.

My guess is that he didn’t have to do anything in particular for this moment to matter. His presence itself brought joy and hope. Even as a baby, his arrival signalled that God was truly with his people.

So maybe when we are truly present with others, we somehow, inherently, carry the good news that God is with us, into this weary world.

Perhaps your gentle hand on her shaking shoulder, your meaningful text in the middle of the crisis, or your willingness to listen without offering advice, is the perfect way to show up.

Perhaps the extra cuddles when he’s too scared to sleep in his own bed, the countless hours at his bedside in the hospital, or the five-hour road trip to see her even when she no longer recognizes you as son is exactly what the power of with-ness looks like.

Perhaps your presence – your intentional, willing, available, presence – continues to remind those around you that God is still with each of us, even as we enter into the longest night of the year.

For I wholeheartedly believe, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Moms Rock: Restoring & Reunifying Families

One of the things I love about supporting the foster care community is that everyone can do something to make a difference.

I sat in a meeting earlier this week to discuss an upcoming event at FamilyCore. It’s our annual Moms Rock Party and is designed to honor and pamper moms who are working hard to reunify with their children who have been removed from their homes. This event is held during the Christmas season, a time which can be incredibly difficult for families in all parts of the foster care system.

I love that our agency makes this celebration a priority. Case workers stay late to decorate, serve food, and show these women that someone believes in them. I’m excited to participate this year in serving these moms because I know that motherhood is hard work, even with an incredible support system.

Parenting is easily the most draining (and most rewarding) job I’ve ever done. I’m constantly readjusting my strategies, realizing my flaws, and apologizing to my girls for the mistakes I’ve made. (Research says that rupture and repair in relationships actually helps their brains develop, so no worries. They’ll be fine.)

And I have the added benefit of a supportive husband. He parents so well and is my partner in all things. I can’t fully imagine how difficult it would be to raise our girls without him, yet these moms are often navigating parenthood without a partner or any other support system.

Many of these moms experienced foster care when they were growing up. Some aged-out of the system without a family that would walk them through all of those “becoming an adult” moments. Some of these women struggle with addiction. Others have mental health issues. Some just don’t have anyone who they can rely on as “their people”.

And yet, they’re trying, daily. They’re showing up. For weekly visits with their kids. For parenting classes. For all of the services that they need to complete to be reunified with their children.

These moms love their kids. They may not currently have the skills or support system to parent well, but that’s why foster care matters. Support for these moms matters. Quality care for their babies in the meantime matters. Restoring and reunifying families matters.

I’ve experienced a few corners of the foster care system. I’ve seen the important work a church can do to come alongside those in the foster care community. I’ve personally navigated the intense joy and immense pain of being a foster parent. I now work behind the scenes at an agency that is aiming to strengthen families for a better community.

But I don’t know what it feels like to be the mom who is working as hard as she can to reunify with the kids she loves. I don’t know what it feels like to be alone and like the odds are stacked against me.

Of course, there are some moms who just aren’t capable of providing safety and meeting the minimum parenting standards to welcome their kids back into their home. But I fully believe that many moms (and dads) can absolutely do it. They simply need support, just like the rest of us.

So, if you’d like to be part of restoring families, I invite you to start today by helping us with our Moms Rock Party. Buy a gift card for groceries or gas. Collect winter gloves or hand lotion. Make a dessert or donate your time to paint some nails.

Our staff will spend the evening reminding these women that they matter. Their hard work can pay off. And, if they stay the course, their kids can come home. It will be a hope-filled evening full of dignity and celebration.

What We’re Learning to Do Differently

I’ve already written a post on getting our girls to learn to sleep, and yet, as I reflect on the last four years of parenting, it’s one of the areas I wish we’d approached differently.

You can check out my previous post Sleep Matters to see how I was processing this part of the journey a year and a half ago. There were definitely some things that we did well, and other things we’ve adjusted since I last shared.

One of the main things we decided to do a little differently is to lean into what our girls were asking for even if it seemed unconventional. One of our girls really wanted to be rocked. We’d try to convince her to just lay down in bed. We’d offer to just pat her back or lay with her. But she was persistent.

And we, the stubborn couple that we are, really didn’t want to “give in”. What if we started this practice and then she expected it every night? Isn’t she way too old for this? Shouldn’t she be able to just go to sleep on her own?

All of those questions, while normal, are loaded with fear. Fear she’ll be seen as weird or behind. Fear that others might judge us if they hear we’re still rocking our six (now seven) year-old. Fear that I’ll be here all night and won’t have time to myself.

I wish I would have asked myself these types of questions, “Is it in my power to say yes?” “Will this yes help her in the long run?” “What does saying yes mean to her?”

Now, I’m NOT saying we should respond “yes” to every single idea our kids have. In fact, this daughter is so incredibly creative and unique that she asks us to do all kinds of crazy stuff over the course of a day.

But what I am saying is that if our kids are asking us something repeatedly that could possibly help them, show them that we care, and remind them that we want them to ask for what they need, then maybe we should try to say yes more often.

So, we started saying yes to this specific request. Dustin would rock her for five minutes or fifteen minutes, or whatever she seemed to need. And she didn’t ask every night. Not even close. In fact, it seems like she’s asked less and less now that we’ve said yes a few times.

Sometimes, Dustin will now actually offer to rock her on nights when bedtime seems to be a little more anxiety-laden. She’ll happily crawl into his lap, and rock back and forth, calming down fairly quickly. Most nights, she doesn’t even fall asleep in the rocking chair. She just enjoys the time together with Dustin or me.

And my view has changed. Now, when I look at her in her dad’s arms or I pull her close to me for one more song, I tell myself – she’s finally experiencing a stage that she truly needed. I watch her soak up those feelings of trust, connection, safety, preciousness and love. And I celebrate the opportunity to say yes.