The coronavirus threatens those who need care the most and strains networks providing help
Northwest Region winner: Beacon Hill
ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Parents and children often share an expression of wonder when they enter Beacon Hill, a foster care/adoption community resource center in Anchorage, Alaska. Their eyes widen as they scan the room popping with colors, textures, and sounds of children laughing and squealing as they pretend to drive a toddler-sized plastic school bus or flip through storybooks.
Corey Dubie had that same amazed look during his first visitation with his daughter Mystery at Beacon Hill: “I was shocked at how much of an upgrade it was from that little sticky room.” His next feeling was relief—finally, he thought, something’s going to change.
“That little sticky room” is the visitation room at the Office of Children’s Services (OCS). Mystery was 2 when police found Dubie’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend passed out in their house, high on prescription pills while Mystery wandered alone. After OCS placed the girl with her great-grandmother in 2013, Dubie fought for reunification with his daughter. The requirements for reunification included weekly, one-hour supervised visitations with Mystery at OCS.
Each week Dubie waited in a sterile little room to see his daughter, who was too young to understand why she was there, or why a note-scribbling stranger always observed their interactions through a window. A funky urine odor stained the air. The pile of toys in the room—Legos, miniature cars, dolls—felt sticky and worn from the touch of countless hands. Sometimes Mystery would begin fidgeting, her bright blue eyes apprehensive and wandering, while Dubie scrambled to create clever ways to keep her entertained.
Dubie cherished every minute with Mystery, but he also felt like one case number out of hundreds of folders in an overstuffed cabinet. Begging OCS for more time with his daughter was like an ant’s squeak during a thunderstorm. Gradually, he lost confidence that he’d ever get his daughter back: “I felt completely defeated, like nothing I did was helping me.” Then OCS referred them to Beacon Hill.
Beacon Hill looks nothing like OCS. Its first-floor office in downtown Anchorage, just blocks away from OCS, looks like a playroom jiggling with creativity and fun. Blobs of cotton hang from the ceiling like fluffy clouds. Green leaves dangle from branches sprouting out of a pillar painted into a snowy-barked tree.
The playroom has themes: Here’s the theater, the rowdiest place in town, where mini–rock stars strum miniature guitars and bang on the keyboard. There’s the library, stacked with board games, picture books, and Bible stories. Kids doodle with crayons at the Native Art Center, a nook framed with totem poles from the Alaska Native Heritage Center. In the corner is Phyllis’ House, Mystery’s favorite spot, where she pretended to iron towels, tuck babies into bed, cook breakfast—and where Dubie played with her.
Beacon Hill began in 2008 with 10 families from Anchorage City Church. They gathered every month to pool $100 each into an anonymous charity fund for church members, usually homeless single mothers, who needed financial assistance. After much prayer and fasting, that private group morphed into a nonprofit organization running a faith-based homeless shelter for mothers and children.
Over time, the leadership of Beacon Hill recognized more specific needs in the city. One out of 100 Alaskan children is in foster care because of trouble at home—twice the national rate. Though family reunification is the first goal, issues such as overcrowded court dockets, overstrained social workers, lack of moral support, and inadequate transportation hamper healthy, timely progress.
Again, Beacon Hill members prayed and fasted for direction. When OCS in February 2013 said it needed help in facilitating family visitations for reunification, Beacon Hill accepted that as God’s answer. Two months later, thanks to donations from local volunteers and organizations, Beacon Hill opened doors to its new space. Founder and president Charity Carmody said Beacon Hill does not accept any government funding for this simple reason: “We want to keep Christ in the center and everything to revolve around Christ.”
The gospel stays core, while Beacon Hill’s helping hands grow stronger: This year came Safe Families for Children (SFFC), a church-run movement that provides temporary safe homes for children during a crisis that would have otherwise placed them in the foster care system. So far, 15 children in Anchorage have benefited. This fall, Beacon Hill plans to launch the Heart Gallery of Alaska, a photographic and audio exhibit that pairs eligible foster children with adoptive families.
The Alaska legislature is recognizing that faith-based organizations can do things the state cannot. This year legislators, with Beacon Hill in mind, voted unanimously for a bill that exempts private, nonprofit organizations running family support programs from state licensing and other requirements. Churches, Carmody said, are gradually “reclaiming the grounds that we’ve given over to the government, piece by piece.”
About 100 volunteers, mainly from neighboring churches, help Beacon Hill with transportation, meals, event planning, and prayers. Volunteers are sensitive to cultural tastes: Meals might feature moose soup, bear stew, even whale blubber. Volunteers include 20 “support families” that weekly break bread with a “guest family” with the goal of forming a support blanket around them. Beacon Hill tries to pair families with kids close in age, and preferably of the same ethnicity.
TWO FAMILIES, one led by James and Crystal Stone, and the other by Roddie Faalavelave, make up one pairing. Faalavelave, who is Samoan and divorced, lost her five children and went through a long, frustrating process for reunification. In October 2014, Beacon Hill matched her with the Stones and their three kids, whose ages are close to Faalavelave’s three oldest children.
The two families clicked. The kids immediately pounded out an impromptu concert in the theater section of Beacon Hill, and the two mothers bonded despite their different personalities—one reserved, the other bubbly. When two of Faalavelave’s children lost their foster parents, she asked if the Stones could take them, instead of another OCS-appointed family. OCS and the Stones agreed, and then-1-year-old Prince and 4-year-old Nivereene lived under their roof for 16 months. Nivereene had many teary nights because she missed her mother. Crystal Stone would lie down with the girl and console her for hours. Because both Prince and Nivereene had serious food allergies, the Stones bought four types of milk—none of which is the 2 percent cow milk that James Stone prefers.
This May, Roddie finally reunited with her children after more than two years of separation. Prince, who still calls his former foster parents “Mama” and “Dada,” was overjoyed to see the Stones again. He stuck close to them, making loud fist bumps with James and giggling when tickled. When the Stones had to say goodbye, the 2-year-old burst into piteous wails that trailed long after their departure. His mother did her best to comfort him, but later she snuck into a corner and wept silently.
Operations manager Cindy Adamson was observing it all. She put a hand on Faalavelave’s back and said gently: “It’s a transition. It’s all going to be OK.” Faalavelave turned and replied through shining eyes, “No, I’m crying because when I see my son like this, then I know that family did a really good job with him.”
Faalavelave’s oldest daughter, 14-year-old Princess, still remembers her father ripping the handle off a wagon and pummeling her mother with it. Sometimes, she said quietly, he turned his fists on her. She remembers throbbing with envy whenever she watched her friends’ fathers playfully tease them—her father only yelled at her. A voice inside her hissed, “Why should you still believe in God, after everything He’s allowed you to go through?”
But Princess found an understanding ear in Adamson, who also suffered domestic abuse. Hearing Adamson’s testimony of healing helped to restore her faith, Princess said, and even forgive her father. She said Beacon Hill volunteers “don’t just help you. They step in like they’re part of your family. They help you get close to God.”
Adamson gave up a secure job of 20 years, health insurance, and retirement savings to work for Beacon Hill. She tells parents, “I’m willing to go above and beyond to help you get your kid back, so long as you’re willing to go over my above and beyond.” Dubie, who now shares custody of his daughter with his ex-wife, said that kind of tough love helped strengthen his character and solidify his trust in God at a time when “I was broken, and I knew I couldn’t fix it on my own.”
When Dubie mentioned taking 90-minute, one-way bus rides to OCS-mandated parenting classes because he had no car, Adamson found a couple who donated a maroon 1998 Buick LeSabre. When Dubie complained about how unfair his situation was, Adamson listened empathetically but told him to swallow his ego and do whatever he needs to win his daughter back. She reminded him of God’s goodness and sovereignty, and Dubie says he took that to heart: “It was personal. It was something needed to be said to me by someone who actually cared.”
2015 revenue: $150,007
2015 expenses: $242,025
Assets: $139,000 at end of 2015
Salary and benefits: Executive Director Charity Carmody receives no compensation; Operations Manager Cindy Adamson’s annual salary is $52,000
Staff: One full-time staff member (Adamson) and seven part-time
Read profiles of all five 2016 Hope Award finalists.
Listen to a WORLD Radio profile of this Hope Award finalist on The World and Everything in It.