By Jennifer Best
Noozhawk Contributing Writer
Matthew and Kiel Cavalli of Los Alamos and Jennifer and Adam Phillips of Santa Barbara had hoped to adopt children. Cindy and Wally Hernandez of Santa Maria just wanted to provide a temporary, loving home for children whose parents were working through personal issues.
All of them filled niches with Angels Foster Care, a Santa Barbara-based nonprofit organization that specializes in placing infants and toddlers in long-term foster homes.
“There are so many children out there who need love,” Matthew Cavalli said. “If people explore fostering as an option, it opens so many avenues for them.
“It’s insane to think these cases happen right here, down the street or the house right next to you. You go out there giving your heart to loving that child, this day, that moment, that second; giving them security, words of safety, arms of love.”
Angels Foster Care volunteers commit to caring for one child or one sibling pair for the duration of that child’s need — typically a year or longer.
By focusing on infants and toddlers, the program prides itself on providing stability during critical early childhood development. That bonding, that stability will provide life skills that will follow the children for the rest of their lives.
“We’re asking people to care for them, to really love a baby who may have some effects of early trauma,” Angels Foster Care executive director Holly Carmody said.
“Some of the babies are born drug exposed or drug addicted, so there can be an extra layer of challenges, but otherwise it’s raising a baby like any other baby.”
Jennifer Mills, Angels Foster Care’s director of operations and supervising social worker, said that is an important thing to remember.
“It’s not about being a perfect parent,” she said. “We don’t need carbon-copy families. We need a variety of people from different walks of life, different experiences, who want to have children in their homes and have an impact on a child’s life.
“Everyone has their doubts and anxieties. That’s human. We need well-intentioned, loving humans to step forward.”
It was an easy sell for Jennifer Phillips. Her husband, Adam, on the other hand, wasn’t entirely sure about fostering until the couple went through the mandatory parent training.
Ultimately, they jumped in with both feet, serving as foster parents for two children before becoming the adoptive parents for the second.
“Unequivocally, it was worth it,” Adam Phillips said. “After hearing from other families, we dove right in with fostering a beautiful little girl. It was incredibly hard to give her back, but we knew from the start it was only temporary, that she would be reunified.”
Today, they are the adoptive parents of their second foster child. Four-year-old Adie is a healthy, happy adopted member of the Phillips family, where she’s also the big sister to 1½-year-old Lana.
“You are never sure you’ll get to adopt when you bring home a child, but you treat them like your own until the court case is all said and done, no matter what the final result is going to be,” Adam Phillips said.
Throughout their commitment, Angels parents are provided free respite support as needed, as well as access to social workers. Those social workers were a great support to the Cavallis.
“We wanted to have a family, but, for a while, same-sex marriage was illegal,” Matthew Cavalli said. “We thought we’d have to do a foreign surrogacy, but we have a few friends who fostered and adopted through Angels.
“We investigated and decided, wow, this is pretty rad.”
The Cavallis faced a special set of challenges in family-building.
“Being a same-sex couple, we don’t have the leisure of just saying, ‘Let’s try for a baby,’” Matthew said. “But at the same time, we understand this is a fostering agency. The only thing we can do is put out whatever is best for that child. We’ll be there to love that child until that child goes wherever it needs to be.”
The program also was an easy sell for Jon Clark, president of the James S. Bower Foundation, which was an early financial supporter of Angels Foster Care. The foundation supports goal-oriented programs focused on making long-term change, especially through early childhood interventions.
“We feel that’s the best time in a person’s life to do things for them and change their outcome,” Clark said. “These are programs that are so good, so worthwhile, so important to the fabric of the community that we support them.”
The Bower Foundation was particularly drawn to the program’s history: a local individual seeing a gap or an issue, and coming up with a better model.
“From the get-go, Meichelle (Arntz) was one of those founders who had, in her mind, building an organization she could step away from,” Clark said. “She’s been able to do that and see this program continue.
“That’s pretty rare. She picked board members she knew could take over, who understood the mission and the programs, and who didn’t rely on her to keep it going.”
While some enter the program in hopes of sheltering some children and bringing home others for good, the Hernandez family is clearly committed to fostering. They learned parenting lessons through raising their own children. They have four grandchildren of their own.
“The part that really drew me to Angels was the fact that they focused on bonding with these babies,” Cindy Hernandez said. “I didn’t realize how great the need was until we got involved with them.”
She also appreciates the long-term relationships they’ve developed not only with children they’ve fostered, but with the children’s biological parents.
“I get great joy out of these kids,” she said. “You kind of make a family with these people, get to know them, where they come from, their lives.
“When we get a random email or update message, that’s the reward.”
Go to www.angelsfostercare.org for more information, including how to become a foster family.