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Foster care ministry 'Zooms' ahead despite pandemic

St. John Neumann's Hope, Heart & Home group expands coalition to uplift, advocate for foster children

From left: Ada Avallone, Hope, Heart & Home's liaison at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Pam Cosio, of St. Louis Parish, and Eric Schwindeman, who founded the ministry at St. John Neumann Parish in 2018. Hope, Heart & Home is now active in all 11 parishes of the South Dade Deanery.

Photographer: COURTESY

From left: Ada Avallone, Hope, Heart & Home's liaison at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Pam Cosio, of St. Louis Parish, and Eric Schwindeman, who founded the ministry at St. John Neumann Parish in 2018. Hope, Heart & Home is now active in all 11 parishes of the South Dade Deanery.

PALMETTO BAY | Thirty-six volunteers Zoomed in for the September monthly meeting of Hope, Heart & Home ministry, which has persevered online through the pandemic in its efforts to uplift suffering foster care children in Miami-Dade County.

Two of the 175 recipients show off the backpacks they got at Hope, Heart & Home ministry's Aug. 8, 2020 giveaway at St. John Neumann Church in Miami.

Photographer: COURTESY

Two of the 175 recipients show off the backpacks they got at Hope, Heart & Home ministry's Aug. 8, 2020 giveaway at St. John Neumann Church in Miami.

On the Zoom, one Homestead teacher checked in with her first three foster children. A founding volunteer reported on a new project to mentor foster youths through college. And all participants drew inspiration for their advocacy for the county’s 2,000 to 3,000 foster children from James Haj, CEO of The Children’s Trust, the HHH ministry's newest community partner.

“The people here are doing God’s work,” affirmed Haj, the meeting’s guest speaker and a parishioner at St. John Neumann Church in Miami. “We fund over 200 providers and over 2,000 sites so there’s a lot going on," he said, adding that he hoped partnering with the group would enable the Trust to "get feedback on what are  the needs that you see in the community.”

The Trust is the largest funder of after school, youth enrichment and summer camp programs in Miami-Dade County. This fall, HHH will support its Miami Heart Gallery online exhibit of children eligible for adoption.

“There’s a great need for foster care parents so we’re looking in our communications team at how do we do a media blitz in November, which is National Adoption Month, to really push and get people to volunteer, to do foster care, respite care,” Haj said.

St. John Neumann parishioner Eric Schwindeman, adopted himself, conceived HHH in 2018 after hearing a talk by Nelson Hincapie of Voices for Children Foundation. The first meeting attracted 50 volunteers from St. John Neumann, St. Louis and St. Catherine of Siena parishes. The ministry has since expanded to all 11 parishes of the South Dade Deanery.

Young adult volunteers are ready to help Hope, Heart & Home load backpacks into cars at the ministry's August giveaway at St. John Neumann Parish in Miami.

Photographer: COURTESY

Young adult volunteers are ready to help Hope, Heart & Home load backpacks into cars at the ministry's August giveaway at St. John Neumann Parish in Miami.

HHH has trained 55 Guardians ad Litem who advocate on behalf of individual foster children in the 11th Judicial Circuit. They also support the young people through abuse, neglect or abandonment, doing so virtually amid the pandemic. Schwindeman’s cases have included a boy abandoned and beaten at a crack house.

“We provide the hope and vital Catholics give their hearts and open their homes to these children,” Schwindeman said. “It’s been a real story of resilience as far as what’s going on and the challenges we face with the COVID crisis and being able to maintain the communication and relationships with all our partners, in all our parishes.”

The HHH ministry also recruited six foster families in partnership with Citrus Family Care Network. Among them was Yohandra Acosta, who moved out of her mother’s house during the pandemic and felt isolated in her apartment. She contacted Schwindeman after meeting him at a retreat, and learned about HHH.

“I had read this consecration to St. Joseph. St. Joseph was like a foster parent to Jesus. That made me think about fostering,” she said. “I was feeling very lonely and thought, why not have children in the house, since I’m a teacher and I love children and I’ve never had children.”

Carmenza Ortiz is a member of the Hope, Heart & Home ministry at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary-St. Richard Parish in Cutler Bay.

Photographer: COURTESY

Carmenza Ortiz is a member of the Hope, Heart & Home ministry at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary-St. Richard Parish in Cutler Bay.

In June, after a month of online training, she received a baby, a 4-year-old and 10-year-old.

“It hasn’t been that difficult and they are very well behaved. And the mom is very nice. She’s working on getting clean and they’ll be going back with her soon. I take them to church on Sundays and I read the Bible before they go to sleep," said Acosta. "I want them to know that God is with them and they’re not alone,” she added. “It’s a ministry.”

HHH also recruits respite parents to relieve foster parents and panelists for the Florida Foster Care Review boards. Dr. John Gentile and attorney Harrison Griffis are developing the mentor initiative in partnership with Citrus’ Youth Advisory Council, to support youth aging out of foster care. In the August Zoom, council head and former foster child DeMarco Mott said that for young people shuffled between homes and starved for connection, “working with a mentor from a faith-based organization like yours would make a world of difference.”

Gentile first served as a Big Brother to a fatherless 10-year-old through his graduation from Cornell — and remains friends with the now-50-year-old. “What I helped with was just providing the male influence in his life that he didn’t have and could talk to and be with,” he said. “I saw the value of being a mentor.”

He’s now excited to support Miami foster youths into adulthood. “It’s the purest form of giving back, helping a child, a young adult, helping with their way through life, through issues,” he said. “This is so Christ-like, what we are supposed to do.”

Lorenzo Cosio, Jr., and his wife, Pam, pose for a photo during the backpack giveaway at St. John Neumann Church in August 2020. He is the Hope, Heart & Home ministry's marketing director and liaison to St. Louis Church in Pinecrest.

Photographer: COURTESY

Lorenzo Cosio, Jr., and his wife, Pam, pose for a photo during the backpack giveaway at St. John Neumann Church in August 2020. He is the Hope, Heart & Home ministry's marketing director and liaison to St. Louis Church in Pinecrest.

In August, HHH teamed with Citrus and the South Florida Foster & Adoptive Parent Association to hand out 175 backpacks at St. John Neumann. Over 30 volunteers donning HHH masks and “child advocate” T-shirts guided parents through the drive-thru pick-up line.

This fall, Schwindeman and HHH team members hope to welcome more volunteers ages "19 to 90,” he said. HHH will also host virtual Guardian trainings, as the need has increased due to state Guardian at Litem budget cuts. 

“It’s been a great couple of years as far as getting this off the ground. And we have a lot of work to do, a lot of participation we want to get from all these parishes,” he said.

Due to COVID, “a lot of abuse at home is probably flying under the radar," he noted, so now that kids are going back to school "they expect an increase in the number of cases.”

A former marketing executive, Schwindeman embraces his new mission. “I believe more Catholics need to put their faith into action, to do what is morally right, to love mercy, extend kindness to strangers, and walk with a powerful God,” he said. “I have thrown myself into forging this faith-based community coalition into a force where none existed before. This is truly a pilot program for the Archdiocese of Miami. And we refuse to let this COVID crisis deter us.” 

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Hope, Heart & Home ministry's banner hangs at the entrance to St. John Neumann Church in Miami during the backpack giveaway in August.

Photographer: COURTESY

Hope, Heart & Home ministry's banner hangs at the entrance to St. John Neumann Church in Miami during the backpack giveaway in August.

Comments from readers

Karen Kerr - 10/29/2020 01:32 PM
What a wonderful organization! It is so important for churches to encourage their parishioners to get involved and to reach out to these children. The Church can, and should, become a dynamic force for children in need throughout the diocese. Thank you to Mr. Schwindeman and all of the members of Hope, Heart and Home! May other parishes follow your lead.

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