- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Staff writer Denise Barnes interviewed Kym Ludwig, director of programs for Volunteer Emergency Families for Children.

Question: How does VEFC find out about children in need of emergency shelter throughout Virginia?

Answer: In Northern Virginia we partner with the local department of social services and, in some cases, the local juvenile court service unit. So we’re a resource to these agencies, and they make appropriate referrals to their local VEFC program. For instance, if the department of social services goes out on a call and a determination is made that it’s in a child’s best interest to be removed from the home, they often will immediately place the child in a waiting VEFC home. The benefit is that the child is in a safe family environment while the local department of social services has an opportunity to investigate further, or go to court and work on the best long-term plan for a particular child.

Children stay in the VEFC home for one to 21 days, which really gives the department of social services time to work out a good plan for the child. Sometimes children are placed in foster care homes, and sometimes they return to their own homes and services are put in place, which might include counseling for the family. One of the purposes of VEFC is to keep children out of the foster care system whenever possible. When we talk to our partner agencies they often describe the foster care process as being traumatic for everyone involved.

Q: How quickly is the organization able to place a child in a crisis?

A: Let’s say a 4-year-old is left home alone to care for his twin baby sisters. He becomes frightened, leaves the apartment and pulls the fire alarm. Police respond and find no adult present. All three children are immediately taken to a VEFC home until the authorities can investigate the matter. That’s just one of the 250 requests for emergency shelter we receive in the Northern Virginia program area. Children can be safe 30 minutes after we receive the phone call. All VEFC homes are kept confidential, and no one releases the names or addresses of our families.

Q: Who are some of the agencies that VEFC partners with, and how are children selected?

A: Some of our long-term partners include the Fairfax Department of Family Services, the City of Alexandria [Department of Social Services], the Prince William County DSS, the City of Manassas DSS, Manassas Park DSS and the 31st District Juvenile Court Service Unit. We take children between the ages of birth and 17, and all of the children are screened before being placed in VEFC homes. We do not accept children who are violent, suicidal, on drugs or on alcohol. And our volunteers can choose the age and gender of the child, and length of time they are able to serve as a host family.

Q: Have families in Virginia embraced this program?

A: Yes, and it’s wonderful to see whole families come together to voluntarily open their homes to children in crisis. Our families make themselves available 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. They’re ready and willing to welcome a child whenever needed. I can say, in addition to being a program director for VEFC, my family has been a host family for 11 years. It’s the satisfaction of knowing that you were there when a child had no place else safe to go, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for my children to be able to learn about giving back to the community at an early age. For me personally, I’ve enjoyed watching my children learn to accept all people and not judge anyone based on their family’s background or circumstances. That’s what so fulfilling about being a VEFC volunteer. We welcome children into our homes and watch friendships develop.

Q: How can families sign up to become VEFC volunteers, and how does your organization get the word out?

A: Usually families learn about our organization through their local churches, newsletters or newspaper articles. We usually have two to three local training sessions in an area every year. Training sessions run 10 to 12 hours, and families are required to go through the state foster care approval process. That means everyone in a household 18 years and older must have a criminal background check done and a child protective service check. Also, everyone 18 years and older must consent to a [tuberculosis] test. At that point, a member of their local department of social services will visit the home to do a home study. The social worker makes sure smoke detectors are working, and they talk to all family members to ensure that the family and the child are a good match for one another.

Q: How do the children who are placed in VEFC homes adapt?

A: When children first come into VEFC, they are often frightened. Quite naturally, they don’t really know what to expect, but within hours they feel as if they are members of the VEFC family. That’s one of the points we cover in training with our new host families.

The children are encouraged to participate in all the activities of the host home, and over the years families have received visits from children who stayed with them years ago, received phone calls and invitations to their weddings and graduations. So, we do know we have made a difference in the life of that child. Our families are committed to the child’s well being. Host families depending on the length of the stay will re-enroll the child in school. Our parents help them obtain their GEDs. Not only do we help them with shelter, we are helping them with life skills.

Q: Is the organization planning any big fund-raising events or parties during the summer?

A: Well, our 25th anniversary rolls around next year, and each community is planning its own celebration. The Northern Virginia program area is currently working with local volunteers to determine the best way to celebrate serving children. We’re going to have a really big party, and the community will be invited as we celebrate 25 years of people opening their hearts and homes to children regardless of the circumstances.

For example, during 9/11, especially in Prince Williams County area, social service agencies had to decide what the plan would be should they start to get calls about a parent who had not returned home from the Pentagon. And one agency representative commented to us later on, they knew that they could call on VEFC families if needed. They knew our families were available on that day to care for children. Along with the 25th anniversary celebrations, our volunteers are gearing up now for our annual “Give Your Heart to a Child Gala” held every year around Valentine’s Day.

Q: What does VEFC need?

A : We always need volunteers of all backgrounds, races and religions because we want to make the best match for the child whenever possible. We have an especially great need at this time for African-American families and bilingual families. And for those folks who may not be able to bring children into their homes, we have a local community council, which consists of a group of volunteers who come together once a month to discuss ways they can share the VEFC mission with their community. The council meets in the evenings for one hour, maybe eight to nine times a year. The meetings are open to anyone who has a desire to help a child. We welcome everyone to come and sit in on a meeting and participate in the conversation.

To contact Community Forum, call 202/636-3210 or e-mail dbarnes@washingtontimes.com

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