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A nonprofit that helps foster parents and families is spreading joy this holiday season

Kids line up to see Santa.
Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange
Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren gather for a Christmas party at the Hub on Smith on Dec. 20. Food, fellowship, games, and, of course, Santa were on hand for attendees. This year's event hosted 18 families and approximately 40 people, which was the most attended Christmas party to date.

The Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange is an organization that serves children in crisis and provides material support to families and foster parents taking care of them in Sheridan and Johnson counties. The demand for their services has risen this year and is expected to continue into the next. Wyoming Public Radio’s Hugh Cook spoke with the Exchange’s Carla Crayton about what they’re doing this holiday season and what they’re preparing for next year.

Carla Crayton: Our primary purpose is to help children feel at home no matter where they are. And what that looks like for here, the way we started and the crux of our program is we provide a blue IKEA bag and we fill it with a week's worth of clothes, socks, pajamas, underwear, hygiene kit and toys, and deliver it to the foster parent within four hours of the child being placed. Sometimes those kiddos even come here before they go out to a foster parent's home. A lot of the kiddos that we see in our community come in with absolutely nothing. And so they're able to have possessions right away to help them feel more comfortable in the transition.

Hugh Cook: How many foster families are you currently providing resources for?

CC: Well, the number is kind of hard to gauge because we also work with grandparents that are raising their grandchildren and a lot of them aren't in the system. They've had a child that's gone to jail and they've taken custody of the kiddos and they're not necessarily Department of Family Services placements, but we serve those as well. The number fluctuates between 75 and 100 children in Sheridan and Johnson County combined, but that does not count the grandparent raising grandkid number.

HC: Has that number increased over the years, or has that been fairly stable?

CC: It has increased, especially this year, and we have had a lot more babies this year than we've ever had in the past.

HC: Do you attribute that to something in particular or just kind of a trend?

CC: I would say that some of it is because of COVID. Honestly, there's a lot of mental health issues that went unaddressed during that time. And now they're kind of coming to light. The numbers are higher in all the social service agencies right now than they've ever been before. Like the youth home here in our community where they housed kids aged 10 to 17. They're at their highest capacity right now. And they have a waiting list. The women's treatment facility here has numbers well between 35 and 40 of women in recovery here. And they've also got a men's program on top of it. And so the numbers in all the social service agencies in this community are going up. And I anticipate the trend to continue going up in the next several months here. Now with the discontinuation of the Emergency Rental Assistance Program, that's no longer an option for people. So if people have a choice between paying rent or taking care of their children, unfortunately, sometimes the rent comes first.

HC: During the holiday season, it seems that there is a demand on a lot of social service agencies, especially with the bitter cold spell that we're dealing with currently. With the foster parent exchange, the holiday season, I'm sure, is one of those times of year that's probably heavily in demand. What is it like this year?

CC: It's been very busy this year, but we've also had more resources than ever. So it's been very helpful. We've gotten to do some unique things this year. We have a lot of kids at our local junior high that wind up going to school and they don't have underwear, they don't have hygiene products. And so with the help of Century 21 BHJ here in town, they gave us $1,000 to furnish a closet for the junior high to provide those supplies. So that was something new we did this year. We served 65 children in our foster kids store last year. And we're at about 116 so far this year, and we're not quite done yet. So that's gone way up. It has been probably the busiest holiday season. We have a lot of our donors that have been really, really proactive and helping us with things this year. And that helps a lot. One decided to do a project for the youth home and raise funds on their own. So those kids that maybe couldn't go home for Christmas break for one reason or another had some fun things to do. Today, they're going to do the paint posts and things like that. And then we had the foster kids store this year that was very busy. It's been amazing. And this year, we started inviting some mothers that are in treatment to maybe get some gifts for their kiddos as well. So maybe they have a kiddo in foster care and the foster parents shop for them and we wrote down that information so they didn't pick out the same things. But it gives them a sense that they can actually do something for their kids while they're working on getting them back.

HC: For the holiday season, are there any special programs or items or materials that you give out or are more in need of during this time of year?

CC: Usually coats are always a huge need for us. Waterproof gloves are always a huge need for us. We've been blessed with an abundance of socks this year so that was great. Famous Footwear took care of a lot of our toys this year. So that was awesome as well. They sent a whole palette of things for older children as well. We'd like to have craft kits and things like that for kids at the group home or the Girls School. Those are all things that we've gotten into servicing over the years. It's no longer just we give foster kids a blue bag. That happens maybe 45 to 50 times a year. And then the rest of it is serving kids in our community that are in some type of crisis in one way, shape or form.

HC: Any other holiday initiatives or things you'd like to share?

A large crock pot of chili and cinnamon rolls sit on a table with assorted candy.
Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange
Chili and cinnamon rolls were abundant for the Christmas party on Dec. 20. The Sheridan Foster Parent Exchange is expecting increased demand for their services in the coming year and has experienced more foster families and grandparents raising their grandchildren in recent years utilizing their services.

CC: Well every year we participate with the Hub on Smith, which is a local program here at the senior center and we do a grandparent raising grandchildren Christmas party. We did it last night [Dec. 20], we had quite a turnout. And they're all grandparents or great-grandparents that are raising their grandchildren. We currently have about 18 families registered in that program. And we had quite the party last night with Santa and we had chili and cinnamon rolls and we had ornament painting and of [a] saran wrap, hot potato game and cornhole. And it was really, really great. All the kids got a present and it was a lot of fun. So we've gotten to do more of those kinds of experiences, things that some of these kids, they've experienced great loss, and so just something where they can be a kid and have fun. And the grandparents can spend time talking to each other and learning things because it's a hard job being a grandparent raising a grandkid. It really, really is.

HC: Is that an event that happens every year?

CC: Yes, we do it every year. This is probably the biggest turnout that we've ever had for it. I'm pretty sure that it's the most people that we've ever had registered in the program as long as I can ever remember being associated with it.

HC: Do you have an idea about how many people that was?

CC: Well, we have 18 families currently registered in the program. And so with children, it was probably between I think about probably 40 people, so it was definitely loud and it was fun.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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