SASKATOON — Ten years ago, Lynn and Jayme Chotowetz packed up their comfortable life in Calgary and boarded a plane for Africa. They had decided, with some trepidation, to participate in a mission called Hands At Work.
The aim of Hands At Work was to mobilize Christians in African communities to support and take responsibility for the grandmothers and other primary caregivers across Africa caring for the millions of orphans left after the AIDS epidemic. Hands At Work also mobilizes church volunteers from outside Africa to support and serve the local effort, entering into relationship with the families on the ground, and offering whatever kind of hope and help they can offer.
When the Chotowetzes returned to Canada 10 years later, they adopted two boys out of the foster care system. Almost immediately, the couple saw a clear parallel between the experience of the AIDS orphans and their caregivers in Africa, and the experience of foster children and their caregivers in Canada.
“We are looking for people who are willing to make this personal,” said Lynn at a gathering of 40 interested people at an interdenominational information gathering session on April 24 at Lakeview Church in Saskatoon.
“If you need someone to build a computer, hire an expert,” he said, “If you need someone to heal a human heart, you need friends. You have to make it personal.”
Lynn explained briefly the situation he and his wife saw in Africa: cycles of drought and poverty and the crushing responsibilities of the grandparents left behind to care for a neighbourhood of children.
Chotowetz saw the response to the crisis in Africa as a gift to the church. “Who will bring hope to those who are the hardest to love?” he asked. “Of course it is the church. There is no illusion that someone else is coming to do this. There is no government or big NGO coming in to save the day.”
Lynn did not sugar-coat the experience of returning to Canada to adopt two boys. “There are days where we have to scrape each other up off the floor,” he laughed. “There is great joy, though; it is exactly what we are created for.”
Jayme and Lynn knew it would be difficult to try to make a family with two newly adopted children. What they didn’t expect was how eerily similar it was to the situation they had experienced in Africa.
“Today in Canada, there are nearly 100,000 children who are in a situation where it is not safe for them to go home,” he stated.
Many Canadians know that the state of the foster care system has been in crisis for some time. Six years ago, Tim Korol, past deputy minister in the provincial Social Services Department, wrote a scathing report entitled The Secret Shame, which pointed at the critical situation that had been facing the foster care system for years.
“Originally, the foster care system aimed at finding families who would be willing to temporarily house children who needed to be away from their homes for a while,” Lynn explained. “For a time, that happened. Now it is badly broken. People have run out of words to explain how bad it is.”
The Chotowetzes organized the meeting to bring together churches interested in offering hope and a ministry of presence to foster parents and grandparents who feel isolated and overwhelmed.
Sharing results from a survey done by the Child Welfare League, Lynn said that people of faith used to make up a majority of foster parents, but in recent years, faith is no longer a primary motivation.
“This is not because people have lost faith,” he said. “It is because people of faith are no longer involved.”
Lynn is not just bemoaning the facts, but is trying to offer a solution. “There is someone missing in the system, an empty seat at the table; there is a hole in the social fabric,” he said. “That hole is exactly the shape of the church.”
The Chotowetzes’ plan is to mobilize a group of churches who are willing to be involved and then undertake a pilot project with four foster families, offering them support and time through the churches. The concrete next step includes a day celebrating foster families on June 18.
“I don’t want people to volunteer out of guilt — you’ll be a burden,” Lynn jokingly chided. “We need a group of like-minded, like-hearted people who just want to build relationships and offer hope and support to foster parents.”