J udy Offutt credits former Indianapolis Colts’ head coach Tony Dungy with her decision to become a foster mom 12 years ago. Dungy, a foster dad himself, had filmed a public service announcement on behalf of The Villages of Indiana, a child and family services agency based in Indianapolis. The message barely registered the first time Offutt saw it on TV, but when she caught it a second and third time, she considered it a nudge, not a coincidence. Offutt jotted down the website address and within a week was reviewing a packet of information that described the training and licensing requirements of foster parent candidates. “I come from a family of nine,” she explains. “I love kids and always wanted to have five of my own.”
Instead, Offutt has welcomed more than 200 into her home.
What began with sisters Michelle and Jeanette, soon grew to include Veronica, Jay, Kiki, Taylor…and the list goes on and on. Some have been toddlers; most have been teenagers. Some have stayed a week, others have been with her for months, or even years. She remembers all their names and recalls the stories, often painful, that brought them to her. “Initially, a lot of the kids don’t trust anyone,” says Offutt. “They don’t know who is going to hurt or neglect them. They have a problem believing that you really care about them.”
The need for foster parents like Offutt has become more acute in recent years because of the growing problems of addiction in Indiana, most notably the increased dependency on opioids. The number of children in the state’s welfare system has doubled in the past five years. According to the Indiana Youth Institute, more than 50 percent of children removed from homes by the Department of Child Services in 2016 was because of parental drug or alcohol abuse. That number jumped to almost 60 percent in 2017. Whereas a child’s average stay in foster care used to be nine months, it now is closer to a year. Due to these increases, more youth are “aging out” of the child welfare system and are in need of assistance as they make the transition to living independently as adults.
“This is Indiana’s hurricane or tsunami; it’s our natural disaster,” says Sharon Pierce, president and chief executive officer of The Villages for the past 25 years. “People tend to look for a silver bullet, but there is no single solution.” Instead, she believes a range of strategies, relationships and opportunities—many of which The Villages provides—work together to create positive results for the at-risk families the agency serves. “We’re very outcome oriented,” she says. “We’re always looking with a microscope at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and how we can improve the services we provide.”
Building financial stability
The Villages is one of 10 central Indiana human services agencies to receive Endowment grants in 2017 aimed at building sustainability. Seven of the organizations reach out to persons with disabilities, and three meet the complex needs of Indiana’s most vulnerable children and youth. Several address specific issues within specific populations; others provide a range of services to a range of clients. The grants totaling $80 million make up the third round of grants in as many years designed to strengthen the financial sustainability of organizations who play important roles in improving the quality of life for Hoosiers.
In 2016, the Endowment made grants totaling $100 million to 15 agencies—many were community centers—that provide services to residents of low-income Indianapolis neighborhoods. In 2015, 14 arts and cultural institutions received grants totaling $100 million to grow their endowments and take strategic steps to ensure their futures. The amount of each grant in all three rounds has varied depending on the annual operating budget and scale of impact of the agency. Whereas the bulk of the funds have been earmarked to establish or grow endowments, portions also have helped make capital improvements and upgrade technology for the purpose of increasing revenues and decreasing expenses to promote fiscal stability.
Eight of this year’s grantees are partner agencies of United Way of Central Indiana. A few had existing, but inadequate, endowments, but most did not. As an example, The Villages serves 11,000 children annually, employs a staff of 300, supports the work of 300 foster families and operates two childcare centers. With an annual budget of $23 million, its endowment before receiving this year’s grant was a modest $153,055. While the infusion of Endowment funds—the largest gift in the agency’s history—does not eliminate or even reduce the need for private donations and public support, it will provide a buffer and ease tensions during times when income dips and needs surge.
“Many nonprofit organizations live from hand to mouth,” says Pierce, crediting sister agencies with the determination to “stretch every dollar” as they deal with employee turnover, cuts in government funding and a limited pool of volunteers. The Villages’ governing board will direct $8 million of the Endowment’s grant to the organization’s permanent endowment and use the remaining $2 million to expand programming, support the recruitment of foster families and enhance staff development, training and compensation – investments that will promote future financial sustainability.
Fitting in and standing out
At The Villages’ childcare facilities in Bloomington and Indianapolis, posters that amplify the wisdom of Dr. Seuss decorate the walls. One adage—“A person is a person no matter how small”—articulates the mission of many of this year’s grantees as they serve the state’s youngest and most vulnerable residents. A second saying—“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”— captures the challenge that some of these same agencies face in achieving visibility in a landscape populated by scores of organizations doing exemplary work.
“There are so many good causes out there,” says Patrick Sandy, president and chief executive officer of Easterseals Crossroads, a multi-purpose agency with programs serving persons of all ages who have intellectual, psychiatric or physical disabilities. “People have a lot of choices when it comes to deciding how to invest their philanthropic dollars. The situation is competitive, and there is only so much to go around.”
Crossroads will use its $10 million grant to establish a permanent endowment and will direct a portion of that endowment’s earnings to bolster its fundraising and marketing efforts and to allow them to stay current with technology needs. An ongoing aim of the organization is to correct misperceptions about disabilities and demonstrate how persons with disabilities make excellent employees. Among Crossroads’ signature programs are those that prepare clients for well-paying positions in the marketplace. Examples include the document scanning and digitization project undertaken by employees at Crossroads Document Services and Project Search that prepares high school students with disabilities for jobs in the healthcare industry.
“The students report to one of our two Project Search sites in Indianapolis—one at Community Hospital North and the other at Community Hospital East,” explains Sandy. “The first part of their day is dedicated to life-skills training; the rest of the time is spent immersed in specific rotations at the hospital. They might work for several weeks in the environmental services area or in the gift shop or in the transportation department. They learn a variety of skills and gain an understanding of employer expectations.” The benefits of Project Search are twofold. First, 80 percent of program participants are successfully placed in fulltime jobs at the program’s conclusion; second, “patients and visitors to the hospitals see that persons with disabilities can be active and effective members of the workforce,” says Sandy.
Other Crossroads programs support persons with autism, help stroke victims learn to drive again, reach out to clients in need of outpatient medical rehabilitation, and provide early intervention services. “One of the things that makes us unique is that we serve people with disabilities of all types,” says Sandy, “and we’ve been doing it for 81 years.”
Leveling the playing field
A goal shared by many of this year’s grantees is to reduce barriers that hinder their clients from reaching their full potential. At The Villages’ childcare centers, educators create learning experiences designed to help preschoolers from across the socio-economic spectrum become kindergarten-ready. At Crossroads, clients are introduced to accommodations that diminish the negative effects of their disabilities and open up a world of possibilities. “There’s such a disparity between persons who have a great deal of opportunity and those who have very little,” says Sharon Pierce. “We try to level the playing field.”
As important as programs are, success for program participants often depends on the relationships that form within the programs between client and service provider. For that reason, The Villages has adopted “The Power of One” as its motto. It’s a mantra that foster parents, such as Judy Offutt, understand and see unfold daily. Regardless of how long children are in her care, “I want to mentor them and show them that things can be better in the future than they have been in the past,” she explains. “I say to them, ‘See these four walls? The world out there is way bigger than these four walls in here. I’m trying to get you ready in here, for all that’s out there because not everybody out there is going to care the way I care.’ ”