Jennifer Grosswald and Lara Wilson have been friends for many years, but when they joined the same book club as Deena Dreyfuss, the three ladies soon discovered they had more in common than just a love for reading. All three have a heart for making a difference.
Lara and Deena were somewhat familiar with Crossnore School & Children’s Home from having volunteered once or twice in the past. Jennifer found out about Crossnore through her friend, Jeremy Burnett, who hosted a get-to-know-Crossnore event at her home. After Jennifer attended Jeremy’s event, she told Lara and Deena about the work being done at Crossnore, and they and their husbands joined forces and became the Cottage Sponsors for a cottage on our Winston-Salem campus.
The impact of Cottage Sponsors.
Cottage Sponsors “adopt” an entire cottage of children and are sort of like honorary grandparents to all the children in that cottage. Jennifer, Lara, Deena, and their husbands come weekly to spend quality time with the children, help plan and celebrate their birthday parties, and are their favorite playmates. Paul Grosswald, Jennifer’s husband, says, “We ride bikes, play cars, have tea parties, build block cities, hang out in the gym, play kickball, stomp rockets, pretend grocery, and, on hot days, have fun in the blow-up pool.” Deena says she loves being a Cottage Sponsor because when you’re with the kids, you have to be fully present. “While you’re with them, you’re completely invested,” she explains.
Although there is a lot of “practical” fun being had, all of the Sponsors hope the impact they are making is much greater than just playing stomp rockets on the sidewalk. Jennifer says, “I want them someday to look back and remember that they were loved. They were adored by us. Even if they don’t remember us specifically, I want them to remember the love and adoration we felt for them.” Lara agrees. “I want the affirmation we pour into them to be their inner voice. Instead of ‘worthless,’ ‘dumb,’ or ‘in the way,’ I want them to know they are so much more.”
They’re all OUR children.
Jennifer says that the problem, often, is that society doesn’t see these children as “our” children. Deena agrees. “We have a responsibility to our community. These kids need a healthy, safe place to grow. They are our future. What kind of society are we if we aren’t taking care of our most vulnerable children? Through no fault of their own, these kids have so many odds stacked against them. Some have experienced trauma that most could not imagine, yet they really do have a bright future ahead of them if they can believe in themselves.” And as their Cottage Sponsors, this is the friends’ main goal – to help the children believe.
The Cottage Sponsors have had several very memorable experiences with the children. Paul fondly remembers the day he took a bike ride with the kids and asked for a campus tour. “They showed me the ropes course, the picnic pavilion, introduced me to the goats and horses, but told me not to look the llama in the eye unless I wanted a spit bath.” Lara recalls a less funny time when they accompanied the children to their school open house back in August. “I was with K (a kindergartener), and he wouldn’t go in. He was scared. I just sat in the hall with him until he was ready. He just kept saying, ‘I just want to go back to my cottage.’” She says the experience was humbling. It made her realize how at home the kids are at Crossnore and how safe they feel here. Lara says, “I was so glad we could be there to help the Cottage Parents navigate taking four children to one school’s Open House. But I went home and cried for K.”
A true team effort.
Although the Cottage Sponsors see plenty of hard things and their eyes are being opened to some harsh realities of this world, it is more than worth it to be part of the children’s lives. Deena says that she hopes they know and remember that someone cared about them in this hard world that they were just thrust into. But all of them know that they are not the only ones pouring love into these kids’ lives. Lara says that the Cottage Parents are amazing. “They are creating structure and loving the kids. They have rules about what it means to be part of a family. They are showing them love and support and making sure they know ‘this is not the end for you.’” Jennifer agrees. “[The Cottage Parents] are so fantastic. They are warm and loving. What they do is so hard, and I have such an appreciation for them.”
The appreciation is mutual. Cottage Parent, Julie Attilus says, “It is impossible to say enough good things about our Cottage Sponsor families. They are supportive of both our children and us as Cottage Parents. They rock at awesome birthday parties, back to school shopping, outdoor activities, tutoring, and just generally being present for our kids. They don’t just show up for an hour a week and rack up an hour of volunteer time. They are PRESENT, sometimes several days a week and always just a phone call away. They are so full of love for our entire cottage and a ray of sunshine each time we are with them.”
The foundation of changing our world.
Deena feels connection with all the children – the ones that are still at Crossnore and the ones who have moved on. “I care about them. We have had eleven leave the cottage since we began. I miss them. I think about them and hope they’re thriving.” This unexpected closeness has taken them all by surprise. Andy feels it too. “I have been involved with non-profits before, but never at this visceral level. There’s a whole other world that these kids are living in, and it’s our way of doing something to make that better in some way.”
The friends all believe that becoming involved in foster care in some way is important for everyone. Lara explains, “This is the foundation of where to begin to solve problems in our world. It makes sense to start with the children. And you don’t need any special degree to help children in foster care. All you need is compassion.” Deena adds that we, as a community, have an obligation to care for all our children – ALL the children in our community. “As First Lady Ladybird Johnson once said, ‘Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.’ By volunteering with children in the foster care system, you are showing them that SOMEONE believes in them. You can encourage them to have dreams and to set goals.” Paul agrees, “These kids did not ask for this situation, and it is our responsibility to give back as much as we can, financially and emotionally, to ensure they have every opportunity to create the lives to which they aspire.”
Changed for the better.
This experience has changed all of them, in some way, for the better. Jennifer says she rethinks everything now. “If you’re in a silo,” she says, “get out!” Deena has realized that everyone has a story and that you just don’t know what people are going through. Lara has reprioritized her life, realizing that there are only so many hours in a day. Deena agrees. “Find what you’re passionate about, what gives you joy, and do it.” Jennifer says that the kids give her ten times what she gives them in smiles, hugs, and fun.
The couples all agree that we all have to work together to care for our children in foster care. Paul explains that he now has an appreciation for the enormous number of resources required to care for these children. He adds, “I have a greater respect for those who open their homes as foster parents.” Even if it’s not becoming a foster parent, we can certainly all do something. As Jennifer adds with a smile, “More and more raindrops make the flowers grow.”
May we all go out today and shower those around us with love and compassion, having open hearts willing to make a difference in someone else’s life, especially if those lives happen to be the lives of hurting children.