Foster care nonprofit Agape Villages helps support children in crisis

Organization helped place 160 children in foster homes last year

Being foster parents just made sense to Liz and Richard Messenger.

After raising five children of their own, an empty nest sounded like a form of torture, rather than freedom, and there are so many other children out there who need help.

The Messengers are among the 62 foster families in the East Bay and Central Valley who work with Agape Villages, a nonprofit foster care agency with a strong presence in Pleasanton for the past four years.

"Our far and away No. 1 goal, and our reason to exist, is to take care of abused and neglected children -- children who have done nothing wrong and have just been caught up in situations beyond their control," Agape Villages executive director Janet Kleyn said. "We just want to have safe and loving homes for them while they work to heal."

Based in San Ramon, Agape Villages has offices in San Leandro, Sacramento and Manteca, but its Pleasanton presence started when a volunteer council formed in 2012, leading to the agency's first large fundraiser dinner and auction in downtown Pleasanton one year later, according to Jen Oxe, Agape's Tri-Valley community engagement director.

Since then, Pleasanton has been home to Agape's primary annual fundraiser, the "Jail N Bail," and the foster care agency has an active presence in many community traditions from the First Wednesday Street Parties to being a beneficiary of the Pleasanton Weekly Holiday Fund.

The agency works with county foster care departments in Northern California. If a county doesn't have space for a child or if Agape has access to specific services a particular child needs, they call Agape.

Agape offers all the regular services that a county system would provide, plus many extras, Oxe said. The nonprofit offers free counseling services, an on-demand transportation service to shuttle kids to parental visits and court hearings and funds for extracurricular activities, like art, dance or karate.

Last year, the organization helped place 160 children in foster homes throughout several Bay Area and Central Valley counties. Kleyn said while Tri-Valley residents have been wonderful at opening up their hearts and wallets to support foster children, it's tougher to find foster homes in the area, including Pleasanton where Agape doesn't have any homes at the moment.

Overall, Alameda County Social Services placed 580 children in foster homes last year, including 11 in Pleasanton. According to Pleasanton Unified School District data, seven foster children attended Pleasanton public schools this school year.

Especially since May is National Foster Care Month, Kleyn said volunteers have been attending Pleasanton events to get the word out about how families can volunteer, donate or become foster families themselves.

"We turned away over 1,000 children last year," she said, citing a lack of available foster homes throughout Agape's service area.

What it takes

Becoming a foster parent for Agape can be demanding. To be qualified, applicants must be 21, financially self-sustaining and pass a battery of background checks and evaluation surveys.

Families must have a home with a separate room for foster children, and children of different genders must have their own rooms unless they're infants.

There are other requirements, but the most important one is to have a very big, very open heart.

"It is asking a lot of people, and we know that," Kleyn said. "We're not going to put them in a home where we don't feel like there's a good fit."

Agape has had success with "empty-nesters" whose own children have left for college, careers or marriage.

"For empty-nesters, it can be a great thing," Kleyn said. "They have an empty bedroom, and the child hopefully goes back home. It can be a great match."

That was the case for the Messengers, who have been Agape Villages foster parents for four years. After three of their five children married and moved out, Liz said the idea of an empty house seemed isolating.

They took in several groups of foster children to their home just outside the Tri-Valley, including three infants at one point. Those were exhausting years, but they eventually settled into a groove when elementary school-aged children came to live with them. They traded diapers and bottles for multiplication tables and Sunday school.

After those children were able to go back to their biological families or were adopted, the Messengers had enough experience as foster parents to realize they knew how to care for teenage boys best. Now, they have three foster children, ranging from 13 to 18 years old.

"It just felt like the right thing to do," Richard said.

'The most important part'

When Pleasanton native Carla Butler started volunteering for Agape four years ago, she didn't expect to get so much from the experience.

Butler had just sent her daughter off to college and was coping with the idea of being alone at home after the death of her husband about a decade ago.

To fill her time, she joined Agape's fundraising efforts, and now she helps run dinners and auction events.

But her decision to volunteer for Agape wasn't random. She knew what it was like to go through loss, and she wanted to channel those emotions into something productive.

After learning about what biological mothers cope with when their children are put into the foster care system, she decided she wanted to help those families in whatever way she could.

"I would be heartbroken if I had to give a baby up," she said. "I'd dealt with enough loss. I figured it would just be better if I could help the ones who were out there."

She said the camaraderie between all of Agape's volunteers is strong because they believe in Agape's mission, and they see how the nonprofit foster care organization differs from county agencies. In part, she said, the differences are due to a greater amount of funding, which allows Agape to provide more robust services.

Marie Tara, another Agape volunteer, said she decided to get involved because she grew up in the foster care system and knew the importance of giving back.

After volunteering for Agape for the past year, she said she wishes she would have had connections with a similar agency when she was a foster child.

"I know how important it is for kids in foster care to get activities and counseling and things that weren't always available to me in foster care," she said.

Tara, a resident in nearby Fairview and a small business owner, said her biggest goal is to raise money for the services that these children won't otherwise receive.

"You don't actually get money for going to summer camp or piano lessons (in the county system)," she said, "and it just makes a world of difference for kids who are already displaced from their family."

Butler agreed, adding that she feels everyone should give back to their community in some way.

"To me, the children are the most important part," she said. "Our kids have to be right to grow up into the right type of adults that we want them to be."

Like their own kids

The Messengers had some experience with parenting -- 28 years' worth, to be precise.

Over the years, their home became the de facto place for their children's friends to hang out on weekends, and the family often took in relatives or family friends who had nowhere else to go.

When they heard about Agape's mission, they said, it seemed like a perfect fit.

"It's just a continuation of what we've been doing all these years," said Liz, who worked doing data entry before becoming a stay-at-home mom.

They said they've heard the arguments -- that Liz, 57, and Richard, 58, are giving up their chance to travel or explore their own hobbies when their youngest children move out in a few years. They've heard the stories about difficult children who were raised in troubled households.

But that hasn't been their story, they said. In the four years they've been foster parents, Agape has been careful to give them children who fit well with their skills and personalities.

They have three foster children and two of their biological children living with them, but really they say they have five children at home.

"I try to treat them like my own kids," said Richard, an HVAC mechanic. "I don't ask any more of you that I'd ask of my own kids."

Their oldest foster child, Jose, will graduate high school this year and will move into assisted living while he pursues computer graphics at a community college, the Messengers said.

"From where he came from, I'm so proud of him," Liz said of Jose. The foster children's last names are withheld to protect their privacy.

Liz said their second foster child, Taylor, "just amazes me." She said Taylor's work ethic and enthusiasm for learning are incredible, as is his resilience despite the hand he was dealt.

The couple said they'd considered downgrading to a smaller home once their children moved out, but that changed once they realized Taylor hoped to live with them long-term. So, now they're planning to stay in the area until the 14-year-old graduates high school.

"We wouldn't want to uproot him like that," Liz said. "For all intents and purposes, he is our child."

Taylor said he appreciates that his foster parents have taken the time to get to know him, and they let him to bring friends over.

Last weekend, a group of his buddies stayed overnight to play "Call of Duty" and eat snacks. The Messengers said they encourage their foster children to bring friends over for gatherings like that -- they want them to feel like normal teenagers.

"They're cool," Taylor said, smiling at his foster parents.

On weekends, the Messengers, their 21-year-old twins and their three foster children might gather around the television to watch a San Francisco Giants' game or to play a video game tournament.

On Sundays, they always attend church, and the couple hope the lessons their foster children learn there will carry with them, wherever life takes them.

"It's always been a big family," Richard said. "Our door is always open to whoever needs it."

Foster care, by the numbers:

* As of Jan. 1, there were about 62,000 children in foster care in California.

* A total of 1,825 children were placed in foster care in Alameda County last year.

* So far this year, the county has placed four children in Pleasanton foster care homes.

* About 50% of foster care children graduate from high school, and 20% pursue higher education.

* Of Agape Villages' donations, 90% goes to services and 10% goes to administrative and marketing costs.

* 1 in 5 foster children experience homelessness as adults.

-- Sources: UC Berkeley California Child Welfare Indicators Project, Alameda County Social Services, Agape Villages, Fostering Connections to Success, FosterClub.


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