It takes a whole village . . .

by
09 May 2014

Families in one small US church adopted more than 70 of the hardest-to-place children in Texas. Johanna Derry hears their story

Big hearts: Bishop William C. Martin and his wife, Donna, surrounded by some of the other members of Bennett Chapel who also adopted, and some of their adopted children

Big hearts: Bishop William C. Martin and his wife, Donna, surrounded by some of the other members of Bennett Chapel who also adopted, and some of th...

POSSUM TROT, in Texas, is such a small town that it does not even have streetlights, or tarmac on the roads. But the congregation of Bennett Chapel Baptist Church, in Possum Trot, has seen its congregation swell in recent years. Over the past 16 years, this small, rural, predominantly black community has welcomed 77 of the state's looked-after children into their homes.

"In the late 1990s, my wife's mother died," the minister of Bennett Chapel Baptist Church, Bishop William C. Martin, says. "She was trying to find an outlet for the grief she was feeling. One day she was praying to God: 'If you don't take this feeling from me Lord, I'm going to die.' She felt God say to her: 'Give back to a child who doesn't have a mother.'"

Donna Martin contacted the state Child Protection Services (CPS) to sign up to adoption-training classes. Over the next 12 weeks she and her husband drove a 120-mile round trip to go through the training. At the end of it, they were given two children: a five-year-old girl, Mercedes, and her three-year-old half-brother, Tyler.

"We presented them to the church on the Sunday," Bishop Martin says, "and I began to preach for the next few weeks about adoption."

It had not been an easy decision. The Martins already had two teenage children of their own, and their oldest son was born with severe brain damage, and is still cared for at home. "My brother couldn't understand why we'd adopt with the child we'd already got," Bishop Martin said. "But we were doing what the Lord required us to do."

Inspired by their choice, families from the church began to ask whether they could adopt as well. But for most people, the prospect of driving 60 miles to an adoption training class and 60 miles back was impossible, both financially and in terms of time.

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Bishop Martin asked the CPS if they would run classes in Possum Trot. Their response was that if he could find eight families willing to adopt, they would come.

Twenty-three families came forward; the classes came to the town; and the community began adopting. Most of the adoptive parents were from the church, but some people also joined from the town. "We had a grandmother who adopted a brother and sister, and we've had single people, as well as families," Bishop Martin says.

"Everyone in the church was behind us. We didn't ever feel we were not supported by the families that did not adopt. Everybody in the end gets involved in caring and looking after the children," Mrs Martin says.

They have adopted four children in total. "One girl was being fostered, and the lady looking after her went on a cruise and left her behind. We looked after her for a couple of weeks, and when her foster carer returned, she said she didn't want the girl back. So we adopted her into our family.

"Another boy's brother was being adopted into our community, but the family couldn't take both siblings. We adopted him so they could stay close."

For such a small community, the influx of children with complex histories and severe behavioural issues had a massive impact. "People [started] saying we were doing it for the money," Bishop Martin remembers. "But no money could make me get involved with a child with the problems they had.

"All of us have had some major problems with our kids. We really didn't know what we were getting into. But we weren't giving up.

"You can't expect a child to know something they haven't been taught. You can't expect them to love when they haven't been shown love; and you can't expect them to obey when they haven't been shown how to obey. We don't have a lot of resources. All we could give those children was love, and it was our determination to love them through the pain."

"You take one day at a time," Mrs Martin says. "You have to deal with every issue that they have, one on one. You've got to have a lot of patience and unconditional love."

The state placed some of their most difficult children in Possum Trot. "The community as a whole had issues with it. All of these children had special needs. They'd all tried stealing, lying, trying to connive, trying to be slick, trying to outsmart you. The school didn't know what to do with some of the children coming."

Some help came in the form of a reality TV makeover show that had been cancelled, which decided to spend its remaining budget on a grand finale: building a gym and learning centre for the children of Possum Trot.

It is a centre that the church still uses to provide extra support for children. "We struggle to pay the electricity to keep the lights on, but we feed 75 to 200 children a day, we give them activities, and we teach them life-skills. We're doing some great things to teach our children to be productive citizens."

It wasn't just reality TV who took an interest in Possum Trot. Oprah Winfrey, People magazine, Reader's Digest, NBC news, and many others began to report the extraordinary adoptions taking place in this small town in Texas. The word spread.

"One day, I got a phone call from a girl who was in college. She asked me: 'Is this the church that does the adopting? I've got a son, and I don't want him any more.' She brought the little boy, and told me that she just didn't have time for him."

Bishop Martin found a family for the boy, who was mixed race: a couple from his church who are Hispanic and black. "They were a perfect fit. That mother knew we could take that little boy and raise him."

It has not been plain sailing, but the dedication of the congregation, in spite of the criticism and the financial burden, has made a significant difference to the lives of the children they welcomed. Sixty of the 77 children they adopted are now in college.

"These children aren't doomed. They still have a chance in life. Someone had to stand up and give them that chance. It's not a cakewalk, but what happened to them wasn't any fault of their own.

"There [are] so many children in the system who are carrying fear, and they need somebody to come and lead them out. They don't have to end up dead, or in the penitentiary."

The last adoption took place three years ago, but Mrs Martin expects that there will be more to come. "I believe this is a never-ending ministry. It's now expected of us; after 18 years, the authorities know we're not going away. Even our children that have children - they're wanting to adopt."

If Mrs Martin had her time again, she says, there is one thing that she would do differently with her own family. "If I could go over it again, I would change what I did with my own youngest daughter, with her personal needs; we failed there.

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"Because she was ours, she never went hungry, never went without; so we didn't really sit down and say: 'How do you feel? How do you want to make this work?' We were like: 'We love you, you know everything we're about, join us on the bandwagon.' She's OK now; but it was hard for her."

The next challenge now is to provide some kind of independent-living scenario, such as mobile homes, for the young people who are not able to function well on their own, and who need support with life-skills. The church also faces the challenge of continuing to provide the financial assistance required to support their adopted children through college and university.

Bishop Martin is still encouraging people to consider adoption. "Adoption is one of the greatest things that anyone can ever do. We could have the next Prime Minister, or movie star, or missionary, or bishop locked up in that system; if we don't bring them out, who will?

"It is God's will that no child is left behind, and it's important right now to act to save a generation of children."

Bishop Martin is the author of Small Town, Big Miracle: How love came to the least of these (Tyndale House, 2007). rmartin@bcministry.org

 

The Bishop of Kensington, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, has fostered for 18 months

MY WIFE and I began thinking about fostering about eight years ago, when our three boys were still quite young. We both kept finding ourselves in contact with children in vulnerable situations, and became more aware of the need for people to foster. It touched our hearts.

From a faith point of view, we believe that God has a bias towards those who are vulnerable and powerless in our society, and, when it comes to vulnerability, children in care are clearly in need. There was one particular verse, Matthew 18.5, we couldn't shake off: "Whoever welcomes one child in my name, welcomes me."

At that time, it was hard to see how we could take on any extra responsibilities: we had three children under five, and I was lead-ing a busy and growing church. Would it be responsible to take on another child with particular care needs?

[Then], in 2009, I was appointed Bishop of Kensington, a new position with new responsibilities, and our boys were starting new schools. About two-and-a-half years ago, we realised that there was never going to be a time when life wasn't busy with the pressures and demands that might make a sensible person advise us to not foster.

We went to a "skills for fostering" seminar, simply to find out more, and, though we both came out feeling more daunted, we were inspired, and wanted to take it further. We went through around seven months of fairly thorough assessment, were approved, and two weeks after were asked whether we would take placement of a child. We said yes, and we've had an 11-year-old girl with us for the past 18 months.

As you would expect, it has been an extraordinary period for us as a family. We are both challenged and enriched by this child we share life with, and our boys are a part of the welcome. Together, every day, we see Christ at the centre of our family life in the form of a child we are caring for in his name, and thankful to be learning some new lessons in what loving and serving another is really about.

Reporting by Johanna Derry

 

Sadie Mills became a foster carer after being widowed

MY HUSBAND died at 54. I hada son at home, and I've always wanted to foster. We had meant to foster together, but my husband became disabled; so we put it on the back burner. After he died, I thought: "I have a lovely home, and lots of love to give"; so I decided that fostering was what I wanted to do with my life.

I spent about nine months going through the process, and then started fostering. Straight away, it was an eye-opener, because the children have been through such a lot.

I was 58 when I started, and I took it in my stride. I had my son still at home and I come from a family of 15. I've been surrounded by people all my life, and we all go on holiday together; so I took the children I was fostering with me, too. I've also taken all the children to church with me, as well. It helps them to be part of the community, and to get to know people.

One lad I had had been through several foster homes, and was going to be put in a children's home. He came to me when he was 11, and stayed until he was 18. I learned so much from him, because he had so many problems. We had the same senseof humour, and we could laugh, though it wasn't easy.

When you first foster, you only see the naughtiness, until you realise what's happened on their side of life. Those children have opened up a whole world to me.

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I've had children on respite, too. I looked after a baby girl for a fortnight a few years ago, and she ended up staying for 18 months. When we were asked if we could keep her for longer, I checked with my son, and he said: "Mum, I have never heard you laugh so much as I have the past two weeks." I still see her and her dad, and I'm like her nan, now.

I'm just a normal run-of-the-mill person. I don't take life too seriously, but I do stick to the rules, so the child knows that I'm always there, and I won't let them down. I've always been honest, and I found that not being judgemental of their parents is one of the biggest things. Most importantly, I make them feel like they belong; without a sense that you belong somewhere, you've got nothing.

Reporter: Johanna Derry

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