It all started at Christmas five years ago. Marshall and Tammy Holtvluwer had seen families coming to church with different children every Sunday. They wondered what that was all about.
“In the last church that we were part of, there were five or six families that were taking children into their homes,” said Marshall, who is pastor at Faith Reformed Church in Traverse City, Michigan. “You’d see families walking around with kids that you hadn’t seen before.” After talking to a few of the fathers, the Holtvluwers learned about Safe Families for Children, a faith-based social-services program that uses volunteers to offer temporary care and shelter to children in times of need. Marshall said the idea of extending love to children in crisis “seemed like something that maybe we would be interested in.”
But it took a nudge from their two young daughters at Christmas to get Marshall and Tammy to commit.
“We went to open two presents that our daughters had given us and they were shoeboxes with little mittens in them,” Marshall recalled. “And our daughter Emma, who was nine at the time, gave us this little sermonette about how we’re supposed to love one another, and she said ‘I think it’s time for us to extend our love and open our home, too.”’
Since then, the Holtvluwers have opened their home to eight children through Safe Families. Sometimes, the kids stay for a night or a weekend; sometimes they stay for a month.
The Safe Families program helps parents in difficult situations, neighbor to neighbor, within a community. Working to make this possible around the country is the Foundation for Government Accountability. With the FGA’s help, state lawmakers around the country are introducing legislation to allow groups like Safe Families to expand and serve even more families.
Tammy Holtvluwer said they’ve mainly dealt with inner-city families and single moms who were trying to go to school or suffered from serious illnesses. “One mom had lupus, so she would be hospitalized quite often and, when you don’t have a family because she had been in foster care her whole life, there wasn’t a family resource for her,” Tammy explained.
“I feel like it’s a hard cycle for these single moms,” she said. “I mean, they need to work. But if they do have young children and they’re not in school, they have to have a job to get care or any kind of daycare to consider helping them with their children. So how do they even get their feet off the ground?”
The Holtvluwers understand the importance of walking alongside the parents and applauding single mothers who are brave enough to ask for help. “For any mom to give your kids over to someone you’ve never met,” Tammy said, “that takes courage, in my opinion. There has to be some form of trust.”
“You’re caring for the child, but it’s to support the parent”
Marshall says Safe Families’ work is important because it helps parents in crisis before the foster care system takes over.
“You’re caring for the child, but it’s to support the parent,” he said. “Most of these parents were never taught things, so many take for granted things like routines, stability, and structure.” Helping mothers develop those skills empowers them to be even better parents once they are reunited with their children.
“Think of how the community will benefit,” said Marshall, “if mom has some more stability and support that doesn’t come from the government, but just comes from people that are seeking to be obedient to Christ.” That’s what communities are supposed to do.
“Safe Families really is just a ministry that we, as the church and neighbors, should be doing anyways to fill that need, they’re just our link to do it,” Tammy added.
The Holtvluwers shared a story of two kids, aged 18 months and 2-1/2 years, who had come to stay a few days before Opportunity Lives spoke with them. The children had arrived with no diapers, so Marshall and Tammy purchased a diaper bag and stocked it up for the mother.
“We don’t have to tap into the government for that,” said Marshall. “We can do that. That’s what Christ calls us to do.”
Overall, Tammy said, Safe Families is worth it. “It’s not easy, it’s a little messy, but it’s beneficial for the kids and these families to have a resource, someone that can advocate for them, and that they know that there’s someone there for them,” she said. “It’s a blessing to the kids, and they end up blessing us.”
“The common thread is family,” Marshall added, “We are extending our family to be a family to those who don’t seem to have a family.”
As for the daughters who started all of this with those Christmas mittens, Tammy said “our girls love it. They keep saying, ‘When is the next child coming for us to love on?’”
Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter@ameliahammy.