In the Arms of Angels
“No one wants to feel that their voice isn’t heard, but that’s the reality of the foster care system,” says Bess Wilfong, Founder and Executive Director of Angels’ Arms. As a former foster parent, Wilfong describes the experience as wonderful, except for the lack of support, she says. “An overcrowded, under resourced system, with high staff turnover, it offered little help for the unique needs of the children I was caring for. I didn’t know exactly how, but I knew things had to change.”
Wilfong pulled together a board of like-minded people with varying expertise, and in 2000, Angels’ Arms came into being. The organization has established 13 homes across St. Louis City and County, and St. Charles County, along with a community of support for foster children and their dedicated foster families. This past May, Angels’ Arms was presented a grant award through YouthBridge’s YEP (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) STL! program.
Evidenced by the name, Angels’ Arms has a deep admiration for foster parents. “They welcome these children with open arms and assure them that this is their home for as long as needed – no matter what,” says Wilfong. “We provide the homes, but they offer the security a displaced child so desperately needs…an angel looking out for them until their forever home.”
Foster families are selected after an extensive interview process and take up residence in houses either purchased by or donated to Angels’ Arms. The homes are large enough to accommodate multiples of foster children, as a primary intention is to keep siblings together. “When a child is removed from the home, they’re suddenly removed from everything familiar – school, church, pets – and siblings are often the last familial bond they have to hold on to,” says Wilfong.
Creating a sense of normalcy also is a goal. In addition to all of the resources provided to foster families – from meal deliveries to financial assistance with health services not covered by state funding – Angels’ Arms hosts fun monthly activities and a celebration on every child’s birthday. The organization also assists with sports camps, music lessons, tutoring – “all the stuff that make a child feel normal and part of a family,” says Wilfong.
Javon, 26, says the experience introduced him to the concept of “unconditional love.” Arriving at his Angels’ Arms foster home from the Annie Malone Children’s Home at age 13, he would end up living with his foster family throughout college. He now has a successful career and sits on the Angels’ Arms Junior Board.
While Angels’ Arms offers foster care, the organization began noticing more and more kids like Javon staying long-term, says Cathleen Church, Angels’ Arms Life Launch Coordinator. “The question then was what happens when they age out of the system at 21 and no longer have a safety net. We knew this was looming over them as early as their mid-teens.”
In 2016, the organization started the Life Launch program to help youth through the transition. Beginning at age 14, Church meets with each teen on an individual basis to set a plan for the future, provide education support and life skills training. All are eligible to work one-on-one with a mentor on personal, school and career related issues, as well. Inside Angels’ Arms first foster home, which now functions as its headquarters, is a three-bedroom transitional apartment for older youth going to school or working full-time.
“It’s a privilege to be able to watch them flourish and contribute to that,” says Church. “What’s most rewarding is when they get to the point of expressing their gratitude and what it’s meant to them. I had one young man with the normal ‘senioritis’ who later said to me, ‘I was really difficult and I’m thankful for all you’ve done.’ That just affirmed for me how much he’d grown.”