The 5-year-old was so terrified he was trembling, refusing to cross the threshold into the house. Twenty minutes later, he was roughhousing with a 5-foot stuffed toy snake in the living room.
A 15-year-old arrived silent and sullen until his host mom baked him vegetarian lasagna, traded stats about March Madness brackets and showed him her basketball moves by shooting hoops with him in the driveway.
These are just two of the 15 youngsters that UCF College of Mecine student Kelsey Childress and husband Russell have cared for in the past year through a crisis-care program run through the state. Caring for children in crisis is challenging, but what’s more surprising is that the couple have done this while she attended medical school full time.
She graduates with honors on Friday, May 20.
To see the College of Medicine commencement live click here starting at 9 a.m.
“Kelsey has an amazing capacity to manage challenging circumstances in a calm, compassionate way,” said Dr. Marcy Verduin, dean of students at the medical school who has watched her juggle grueling hours of medical school with her compassionate volunteer work with her “kids.”
“Nothing phases her. She focuses on the big picture, what’s really important,” Verduin said.
Caring for children is Kelsey’s lifelong calling. Her mother was a foster child. Her grandmother – the foster mom who raised Kelsey’s mother and her two sisters – was a schoolteacher for 37 years who never married but dedicated her life to raising foster children. Kelsey taught preschool and during high school provided respite care for foster kids. Her fifth-grade yearbook says, “My dream is to be a pediatrician.”
The Childresses always planned to adopt and devote their lives to carrying for youngsters. They became approved host parents during Kelsey’s third year of medical school, when she said she saw too many children languishing in hospitals because they had nowhere else to go.
The Department of Children and Families identifies children in crisis as those who have an unexpected emergency, but whose home life shows no sign of abuse, neglect or abandonment.
For example, children may need temporary placement because a single parent is seriously ill, injured or dies; a parent is going through rehab for substance abuse or is suddenly homeless or unemployed.
DCF contracts local agencies to find and train host families who will take these children in and provide them temporary shelter without compensation.
Bethany Christian Services runs the local Safe Families for Children host-families program in a district that spans from Orlando to Tampa. All host families, including the Childresses, undergo training and background checks before hosting children and are encouraged to continue a relationship with them and their families after the placement concludes.
Christina McGee, who is a leader for the local Safe Families organization and works with the couple, said the group has about 50 volunteers in the Orlando area but has a great need for more volunteers. Children spend an average of 45 days with host families. They go to school during the day or daycare is arranged. Kelsey and Russell are uncommon because they have taken children of all ages – from 8 months to 15 years.
“Kelsey and Russell are so open and so warm-hearted,” McGee said. “I can’t tell you how many times children have left their house to go back home with tears in their eyes.”
Kelsey said every child has taught her something – about resilience, advocacy, compassion, and the importance of life’s simple things. One child stayed with the Childresses during Thanksgiving and was thrilled to get a chance to make a pecan pie with the family.
Russell, a heating and air-conditioning technician, is a woodworker who built a giant outdoor swing for the younger kids who stay with them and he teaches his craft to the older ones. For many, the soft-spoken Louisiana native is the first positive male role model they have met.
“The kids we take care of are regular kids,” he said. “They’re in the moment and we try to be in the moment with them.”
The couple long had kept their volunteer efforts to themselves, but decided to be more public in an attempt to persuade others to sign up. They think many adults have the heart and means to provide crisis care but don’t because “they are scared to get out of their comfort zone,” Kelsey said, or are afraid it will be too hard to say goodbye to the children.
Succumbing to those feelings is putting your own fears ahead of the needs of the child, she said. It has pained her to return a child to a parent. But she focuses on what she can do – provide a temporary safe haven – and keeps in touch with parents and children after they return home.
Community Based Care of Central Florida oversees foster and host family programs in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties, and every day has about 3,000 children who need assistance, said Sharon Nelson, community relations manager. Without programs such as Safe Families for Children, “these children would be at extremely high risk to enter foster care,” she said. “Without help from people like Kelsey and Russell, these children are in real, real risk of more trauma.”
Nelson said the goal of host families is to provide short-term preventative care for children so their parents can take steps to change their lives and ease their difficulties. Keeping kids out of foster care saves children. It also saves the state money. Nelson has a different perspective on the need for care. She was adopted from the state system. She has two biological children and she and her husband adopted a 16-year-old foster child who went on to graduate from college. “People like us aren’t special,” she said. “We just care, love and don’t give up,” she said.
The Childress’ volunteerism has taken a similar path. They are going through adoption proceedings for a 4-year-old boy and his 3-year-old sister, who have been in foster care. The girl is “diligent, headstrong. She gets things done. She’s my mini-me,” Kelsey said. The little boy is quieter, mellow like Russell. “When we met them it just felt so natural,” Kelsey said.
After graduation, the family will head to Cincinnati, where Kelsey will do her pediatric residency at one of the nation’s premier pediatric hospitals – Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
She knows the statistics on foster children: 400,000 nationwide are waiting to be placed; 100,000 are available for adoption; only 3 percent of foster children go on to college; the majority of girls are pregnant by age 21, the majority of boys are in the juvenile justice system, according to the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the Jim Case Youth Opportunities Initiative.
Her ultimate goal after residency is to join one of the nation’s few integrated clinics for foster children – that provides a continuity of primary and preventative care for youngsters whose lives are anything but stable.
Her secret for juggling medical school, marriage and caring for kids in crisis, she said, is grit.
“People are more capable than they think they are,” she said. “You just do it because it is the right thing to do. We are giving young people hope. And hope is one of the most important things we can have.”