For 75 years, this organization has helped to make broken families whole once again. Kara Anderson discovers how this group makes a significant impact on local children.
It began so very simply, with a minister’s mission and the idea that all children deserve a loving home.
And yet, it helped to create something huge for Toni and Michael Houselog.
“They put my family together,” says Toni. “And that’s miraculous.”
The Houselogs adopted their two children, both 8, through The Children’s Home and Aid Society, (CHAS), a statewide organization that serves almost 40,000 children throughout 40 Illinois counties, including many kids in greater Rockford.
The agency was founded in 1883 near Vandalia, Ill., when Presbyterian minister Martin Van Buren Van Arsdale and his wife brought one child into their home, and asked parishioners to consider doing the same.
More than 120 years later, CHAS was the Houselogs’ first call when they decided to start a family. In 2007, they adopted two 1-year-olds, a boy and a girl, through CHAS’s adoption program.
“Everyone needs to be loved,” Toni says. “I tell my kids all the time that they are my favorite people. They are just my favorite thing to do.”
Celebrating 75 Years
The northern region office of CHAS, now located in the historic Freeman School on Second Avenue in Rockford, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and as Regional Vice President Eileen Liezert explains, it’s never strayed from its original goals, despite exponential growth.
“In many ways we’ve broadened our services,” she says. “But we’ve really kept to our core – trying to keep families together and ensure that children are in safe, loving homes.”
The Rockford branch began with a small group of women working out of their homes creating layettes, until an actual office was leased on May 15, 1939, at 401 W. State St.
The rent was just $7 per month, and there was a staff of three.That’s in stark contrast to the 120 staffers today who work on 10 local programs.
The organization has also grown significantly beyond its initial services that focused on placing infants for “outside,” or non-biological family, adoption. The agency still facilitates adoptions by licensing adoptive homes, but societal trends have changed dramatically over the years, says Liezert, who’s been with the office since 1985.
Many more biological mothers want to raise their babies, so CHAS has changed with the times, creating programs that provide counseling and support for new at-risk parents.
This is in line with the values of CHAS – keeping families together. All programs stick to this mission, says Liezert, including foster care – the program for which CHAS is probably best known.
There in a Crisis
Many of CHAS’s local programs strive to intervene before foster care becomes necessary – programs such as MotherHouse Crisis Nursery, which opened in 2004.
“MotherHouse is a grassroots organization,” says Liezert. “It started with four women who wanted to create a place where children could be safe, while families are managing a crisis.”
Children up to 7 years old can stay for up to three days while the family is dealing with an emergency. It isn’t unusual for a family to be referred to MotherHouse by the police.
Both of the Houselogs’ children spent time at MotherHouse, a thought that makes Toni incredibly grateful.
“I don’t know what might have happened on those nights before we met,” she says. “You don’t know how desperate the situation was. MotherHouse saves lives.”
The facility is open 24/7, 365 days a year, says Lisa Breitsprecker, CHAS development manager. Services are provided free of charge, which means MotherHouse is highly dependent upon community support. Currently, it houses just five children at a time, and turns away nearly 500 per year.
This is especially concerning, says Liezert, because MotherHouse offers a unique kind of triage, connecting parents and kids with community resources that can help them to move past the crisis that brought them there in the first place.
Parents who can’t get that kind of early intervention may find themselves in need of another of the organization’s programs: Intact Family Services, a Department of Children and Family Services-funded program which helps families when there’s “a concern that the family is not able to provide for the child, or that there is a tenuous situation,” Liezert explains. Those situations may involve substance abuse, mental health issues or domestic violence.
The goal of Intact is to resolve the issues so that family members can be together. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible, which accounts for the hundreds of kids currently in foster care.
The Greatest Need
As of this June, the northern office of CHAS had already placed 450 children into local foster homes.
Some are part of the Specialized Foster Care program, which helps children and their foster parents when medical or behavioral issues are involved. Behavioral issues often stem from significant trauma that children have experienced.
Although the goal for every foster child is reunification with family, if a home can’t be made safe, a child may be placed for adoption with a different family member or the foster family.
That means foster parents are taking on an incredibly challenging job, says Liezert. “We’re asking them to love and let go.” Still, 75 children were adopted out of foster care this past fiscal year.
Toni Houselog, who served on the CHAS advisory board following the adoption of her children, says foster parents are desperately needed to help local children find stability and safety.
“If you even sort of think you might want to be a foster parent, search your heart,” she says. “People are afraid of having to send them back, but these kids need care and love while you have them.”
Guidance and Support
Some children adopted from foster care (not all, Liezert is quick to point out) may require counseling to come to terms with trauma suffered in their birth homes, or with the questions that arise from being adopted.
“Illinois was a front-runner in recognizing that love is not always enough,” Liezert explains. “Kids have memories, history, questions.” Children’s Home and Aid offers many kinds of counseling to assist local families – counseling for those who are part of the foster care program, those who adopt, those who are raising their own children while dealing with difficult issues, and for kids who are at risk.
Through the EPIC program, for instance, elementary-aged kids can be referred by their teachers for counseling.
Partnerships with local organizations like the Rockford Park District and Rockford Public Library help connect kids with local resources, but financially, it’s always a challenge to serve children beyond what Medicaid funds, says Breitsprecker.
“It covers such a small piece of the need,” she says. This points to another of CHAS’s greatest desires – unrestricted dollars to help the agency wherever it’s needed most. Sometimes dollars are needed to expand a program; sometimes they’re needed just to buy diapers.
A Constant Need
It was the bee’s knees in June when the Houselogs co-chaired Jazz on The Rock – this year’s Roaring ’20s-themed fundraiser for CHAS.
The Houselogs have been involved with CHAS fundraising for years because they believe deeply in the group’s mission, says Toni. She and her husband spoke to those assembled at the gala, sharing their experiences and asking attendees to be generous in helping the organization that brought their family together.
During the year it took to adopt their children, the agency was encouraging and always told them what was going to happen next, says Toni. And then, rather suddenly, they had a family.
“It was wonderful – one day I had no kids and a full-time job, and the next day I had two kids and no job,” she says, laughing.
“I would never say that you appreciate your kids more when you adopt,” she says of her experience adopting through CHAS. “But you do realize that, without adoption, you may not have had kids at all.”
Ways You Can Help
• The No. 1 need is foster parents. If you’re curious about becoming a foster parent, contact the northern regional office of CHAS at (815) 962-1043 or attend an informational meeting.
• Children often arrive in a new foster home with nothing but the clothing they’re wearing. Children’s items are always needed to help kids with the transition.
• MotherHouse Crisis Nursery never closes and trained staff members provide services for free. High on the needs list are diapers; foods for simple, kid-friendly meals; cleaning supplies; and child care items of all kinds.
• The Children’s Holiday Shoppe opens in December and gives kids the opportunity to shop for a surprise for Mom and Dad. Proceeds benefit MotherHouse. Call CHAS to see how you can help.