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Foster Village Peoria works to bridge support gap for foster families

 Cheriz Kunkel is executive director and one of three founding members of Foster Village Peoria.
Camryn Cutinello
Cheriz Kunkel is executive director and one of three founding members of Foster Village Peoria.

Foster Village Peoria first began a little over a year ago with three foster parents working to provide extra support for foster parents.

Cheriz Kunkel, executive director and founding member, said more than 50 percent of foster parents burn out after their first placement because foster agencies are unable to provide the extra support many families need.

WCBU reporter Camryn Cutinello spoke with Kunkel about the work the non-profit is doing for foster families to fill the gap in support.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

What services and resources do you provide for families?

Cheriz Kunkel: We focus them around three pillars: equipping families, advocating for families, and connecting families. So we have our resource closet, which is a large room with anything, you can think of, clothing, school supplies, car seats, all brand new. Everything we give is brand new. We give those to families who are currently working case plans, biological families, biological families that are reunifying, foster families, teens transitioning into independence care, as well as youth who are currently without guardians, maybe living in shelters and things like that.

We also have foster parents support groups. So support groups is a second program. We have youth events, that's our third. That's just to give kids who are in foster care or have come from foster care, kind of chance to bond with kids with similar life stories. We also have educational trainings on a variety of topics that are really important to the community. So whether they're learning about IEPs, or what trauma looks like in a child, those are very beneficial. And they also give continuing education hours, which foster parents have to have in order to maintain license. And then we also have our visit room. And our visit room is so we have a space that is neutral and safe for families to visit with their kids with more flexible off hours than agencies can provide.

Can you talk about some of those misconceptions that you see?

Kunkel: Yeah, there's a lot of different ways to foster. Most people think of that traditional sense, the people that go into this, and they just want to bring kids into their home. And so they get licensed.

But there are also respite caregivers, so you can become a licensed foster parent, but only take kids on a short term basis. And respite is usually, it's giving foster parents a bit of a break. Tthere's also like temporary care. So when kids come into care, sometimes they can't find a foster home, sadly, but they want to keep the kids from sleeping on the agency floors. So they might call up a temporary home and say, 'hey, can you take them for a week or two until we get some where settled?'

There's also kinship families. And this is the common misconception, is they think everybody is a traditional foster parent, they all have training, they all get the same stipend level, they all get the same supports. And kinship families are very unprepared because they don't have the background and the training. They just happen to know the child. So this can be a teacher, a friend, a neighbor, maybe a great aunt. And the state will call them up and say, 'hey, you know little Susie, will you take them?' And so these caregivers are opening up their homes with like, no preparation. And that's a kinship home. So there's also a higher tier foster parents that are considered spec or therapeutic who have kids who have a higher level of need.

What's the current situation with foster care in Peoria? What kind of support is there? How many kids need homes?

Kunkel: Yeah, it's kind of actually really overwhelming to think about, because in the, so when we speak about foster care at Foster Village, we talked about the Tri County area. So this includes Woodford, Peoria and Tazewell counties. There are over 1500 kids in care in those three counties. And that kind of blew my mind because it's actually more per capita than Cook County, which I was really shocked to hear about. And we currently do have kids that don't have homes who are sleeping on agencies floors, unfortunately. And the issue is, there's a quick burnout rate with foster parents up to 50% of foster parents quit after their first placement due to lack of resources. So as far as resources in the communities, there are the main five to six foster agencies. And they are working so hard, but unfortunately, they just don't have, they're so overworked they don't have the manpower to be able to provide ongoing support once kids are placed a lot of times.

One year in what do you see as kind of your biggest accomplishment so far?

Kunkel: That's a tough question. I mean, I'm just really I'm really proud of all of the volunteers we have. I really did not think when Emily, Danielle and I started this last June a year ago, it would grow so quickly. But we have serviced over 500 families in just the first year. And we have launched five programs and we have more programs we want to launch and everything is volunteer ran, we don't have full time staff. We don't have part time staff. It's really a volunteer led organization. So if we didn't have as many volunteers as we have, we would not be running. So I think I'm most proud about the community stepping up and supporting, whether it's our volunteers or the local churches and businesses.

How can people help your organization?

Kunkel: Yeah, there's a lot of ways to help the foster care community without fostering. We always need volunteers, different levels of volunteers. We have flexible volunteering, we have higher up. We have a board of directors, we have a few more spots on that. Our biggest need is funding. You know, we're new. So we're just getting our name out there really, but continue to help our programs grow. You know, as we get funding, we're going to launch more support groups and we're going to launch project soothe, and all these other really cool things we have coming up.

Foster Village Peoria will be hosting a birthday celebration on July 29th with a catered breakfast and silent auction. Kunkel said people can attend to learn more about the organization and how to get involved.

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Camryn Cutinello is a reporter at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@ilstu.edu.