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Reaching Kids at Risk

Jennifer Hooks

Friendship and Fun

Every child craves friendship and fun -- and at-risk kids will often thrive when they experience it.

Make joy an integral part of your curriculum. Give your kids thousands of reasons to exercise their "smile" muscles. Use your activities, lessons, games, and crafts as an excuse to inject joy into kids. Use activities that build a caring classroom. Celebrate. Intentionally create genuine joy.

Invite kids to belong. Don't assume that a welcome sign on your door is enough. Literally invite a child at risk to become part of the action. Tell the child how important he or she is in your class. Get on the child's eye-level, smile, and encourage him or her. If a child experiences failure or rejection and retreats or acts out, privately encourage that child. Create opportunities for success and laughter. Use interactive learning where kids work together cooperatively to achieve a goal or complete an activity. This is a nonthreatening way to help kids connect and it's one of the most effective methods of education. Give each child tasks, responsibilities, and a role in the group.

French philosopher Jean Jacques Rosseau said, "Far from disheartening your pupils' youthful courage, spare nothing to lift up their soul; make them your equals in order that they may become your equals." There's no question where God stands on our care and love for little children -- especially those facing life-impacting issues. You're uniquely equipped to share God's love with a child at risk -- so risk everything to show God's love!

The View From Our Shoes

We've opened our home to 19 children, many brought to us due to the scourge of methamphetamine. Since we're also pastors, we've seen what happens when foster children come to church. Here are a few reflections and suggestions for children's ministry leaders.

Foster parents have special needs. Foster parents are part of a team to help children manage their losses and move on to their "forever" homes. Because time is of the essence, foster parents are called upon to do more than open their homes to deprived children. We take kids to visitations with parents and other relatives. We take them to doctors, dentists, and therapists. We're sometimes subpoenaed to appear in court hearings to review the children's cases. There are conferences with social workers, the children's attorneys, and the birth families. There are continuing education requirements each year, and written progress reports to be prepared and medication logs to be kept. And then there are all the normal needs to meet for children. Consequently, foster parents are often exhausted and emotionally drained. By welcoming foster children into the life of your church, you'll also minister to the special needs of foster parents. Provide foster parents with children's clothing, diapers, furniture, toys, and games. Invite foster families over to your home so the children can have play time with other children. Offer child care.

Foster children have special needs. These children are grieving the loss of the only life they knew. By being brought into the state's custody, they've lost everything: their parents, sometimes their siblings, their toys and clothes, their school, their friends, and their routines. Foster children often lack the capacity to understand why they've lost everything familiar in their lives. Even if their parents abused them, the kids invariably love and miss them terribly. We've had children weep for days and beg us to take them home to their mommies and daddies. They're uncertain about whom they can trust -- everyone is a stranger. So when new foster children arrive at your church, realize that chances are very high that they're intensely sad and may not be receptive to your warm welcome. They may be withdrawn and nonresponsive, or they may indiscriminately go to anyone for attention.

Prepare to cry -- often. Foster children will usually blossom when given the love, safety, and boundaries they need. They get into your heart, the heart of your church, and they never leave, even when they've moved on to their forever home.


Jennifer Hooks is managing editor of Children's Ministry Magazine.

Kathryn Sparks is an ordained pastor who is now a full-time stay-at-home missionary to foster children. Lee Sparks is the managing editor of Rev! Magazine, a pastor, and a lawyer.

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