A local nonprofit may soon become the state model for community-based support of Louisiana’s expanding foster care program.

James Storehouse Louisiana recently announced its adoption of the Open Table Initiative, which will support teens aging out of the state’s foster system. The new mentoring program will be funded by a $95,000 grant from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation and support from local donors.

In addition, James Storehouse will expand its operations into a 4,700-square-foot facility at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Covington.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house for the new James Storehouse Youth & Family Development Center will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 1 N. Marigold Drive in Covington.

The center will hold the state Department of Child and Family Services’ Covington Region for several of its critical services for foster children and their families.

It will provide a noninstitutional environment and meeting space that will include living rooms, art rooms, a teen room and nursery and a kitchen to hold meetings that can range from an initial custody investigation to supervised visits with biological parents.

“This is going to impact our clients in a really positive way,” said state DCFS Secretary Marketa Walters. “I would love it to be a model to have a family-friendly place in every region.”

The department operates nine regions, with the Covington Region comprised of St. Tammany, Livingston, Tangipahoa, St. Helena and Washington parishes.

Walters said children being removed from a family by DCFS sometimes have to sit in a caseworker’s office where they can overhear the calls the caseworker is making to place them in foster care. Now, in the Covington Region, they will have a supportive space at James Storehouse.

Kim Bigler, of Covington, is the founder and executive director of James Storehouse Louisiana, which provides resources such as clothes, furniture and bedding for children in foster care. She said the original work of James Storehouse is already up and running at the new location. Church members are supporting the original mission, “so we can focus on the new initiative and mentoring.”

“This is all community driven,” she said, noting that grants, private donations, community fundraisers and the vision of the James Storehouse board are “why we are able to do this.”

In the Open Table program, Bigler said, adults will be trained to mentor youth about to age out of foster care. They will act as a team of life specialists, encouragers, and advocates for the youth, and help them establish goals, develop an overall plan and then implement it.

“We need to do this before they become homeless, incarcerated or trafficked,” she said, citing the dangers youth can face if they leave the foster system with no support. “They need one stable, community connection to walk with them into adulthood.”

James Storehouse will roll out the model in St. Tammany Parish. Then, the initiative will expand to other southeast parishes.

Walters said two new bills were passed this year, one that extends the age of foster care through high school graduation or completion of an equivalency program or vocational training until the age of 21. Another creates a Panel on Extending the Age of Foster Care that will review existing programs in other states and design a program for Louisiana that best benefits the approximately 175 Louisiana youth each year who are forced out of the foster care system when they turn 18.

“Children aging out of foster care are uniquely susceptible to falling through the cracks in those early years of independence,” said Michael Tipton, president of the Blue Cross Foundation, at the announcement of the award. “Education, poverty and homelessness are upstream factors that can determine health outcomes for the rest of your life."

The foundation had honored Bigler with its Angel Award in 2017 for her work with James Storehouse. The foundation saw how James Storehouse was expanding and wanted to “put wings on our efforts,” Bigler said. It awarded the grant for James Storehouse to partner with the Open Table model to benefit foster youth in the Covington Region.

Bigler heard about the Open Table concept at a meeting of Louisiana Fosters, first lady Donna Edwards’ platform that connects community organizations and partners with DCFS. James Storehouse is one of more than 50 community-based organizations in Louisiana Fosters that help youth in foster care.

She’s excited that the new program and space will help what she calls the “invisible community” of children and families in the foster care system. It’s a community growing at an alarming rate, she added, as youth are removed from families with opioid and heroin addictions.

They also plan to support foster families by offering quality parenting classes and respite activities.

“We will have a support group, training and activities that show appreciation, including special nights out for the foster parents, with child care provided at the center.”

Board President Karl Zollinger said the transition of James Storehouse from a hand-to-mouth operation to a fully funded facility and program, is the result of one miracle after another. There is more on the horizon for the nonprofit, because “people hear about what we’re doing and they call us," he said.

“The real story for me is that so many people have stepped up and showed up" to help support youth in foster care.

In 2017, DCFS in the Covington Region conducted more than 2,000 investigations and served 1,300 children in foster care and 540 families in their homes, Walters said. Of these, 328 children were eventually reunited with their biological families, 162 were adopted and 26 aged out.

James Storehouse “is a beautiful example of what Louisiana Fosters is and the creative ways to support (it),” Walters said.