A loving, stable home for every child

By Sonia Duggan

Every night throughout Texas, there are foster children who will lay their heads down to sleep in a place that offers them no comfort at all, further escalating their fears and feelings of hopelessness, loss and despair.

The children, from elementary school age up to 17 years old, are sleeping in shelters, hotels and other facilities —  in beds or mats on the floor — where Child Protective Service workers monitor them in 8-hour shifts. Privacy is rare, yet so is the chance of these kids finding a soft place to land in a foster care system riddled with neglect, abuse, lack of funding and more.

Situations like this not only cause great heartache for Denise Kendrick, executive director and co-founder of Embrace, but also fuel her mission to help change the lives of these vulnerable children.

For over a decade, with the aid of a small staff, volunteers and church partnerships, the McKinney nonprofit has made itself available to foster children and foster families by offering support through a variety of programs and resources.

For months though, Denise and her team have been called to serve in a different way — on the front lines of this situation — by providing support to foster children in North Texas on a daily basis.

“We’ve had to do some quick pivoting because there’s a major crisis in our foster care system where we have kids who are staying in hotels. They were sleeping in CPS offices at night,” Denise said. “At one point, as many as 500 kids in the state were sleeping right next to cubicles and basically closets. I mean, it’s been terrible.”

The director said they communicate daily with CPS workers, and because kids are shuffled around, Embrace staff and volunteers have been delivering hot meals to the children every night for months now.

Recently, Embrace volunteers received additional clearance from CPS so they could visit and interact with kids, whether at a hotel or a shelter, to tutor, to conduct cooking classes or just spend time with them and “kind of mentor them,” says Denise. “Because they have no one in the world that isn’t just paid to babysit them,” she added. “And so, for their little hearts and lives, they feel like a nuisance. It’s just really heartbreaking.”

Ministry ‘embraces’

Denise and her husband Bruce Kendrick took a leap of faith and became foster parents in their early 20s when they had one biological daughter, one extra bedroom, and plenty of love. They fostered a little girl who was the first of many children they welcomed into their home.  

“We really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” she said. “We really just wanted to serve and love on them and be a soft place for little ones to land until they could be reunited.”

The ultimate goal for foster children is reunification with members of their biological families, and in the Kendrick’s case, they found themselves being a “statistical anomaly,” said Denise, because “almost all of them went home to their parents eventually.”

Around the time Bruce joined the staff of Rhea’s Mill Baptist Church in McKinney as the student minister, they’d probably had “a dozen kids come and go — maybe more,” said Denise, while raising their biological children.

One Sunday, the Kendrick’s showed up at church with a newborn Hispanic baby girl. This was the first time church members witnessed them in their role as foster parents, but Denise said soon church members were supporting them with meals, baby sitting, etc., in a way they had never experienced before.

“And so, they started doing those things and just wrapping around and loving us and really were the hands and feet in that time,” Denise said. “And I don’t think we could have fostered as long as we did, or as successfully as we did, without them at our backs.”

As a couple, they were fortunate to have supportive parents who lived in the area, said Denise, but other foster parents aren’t as lucky.

Many don’t have that kind of support because their churches just are unaware, she said, “or just kind of oblivious,” about how to help. Unlike pregnancies, weddings, deaths and other familiar life events, it’s not the same when someone gets a new foster child.  

“Do you celebrate? Do you throw someone a shower? How do you handle this? It’s like, you almost can’t do any wrong, just do something right,” she said. “Babysit, drop by a meal, pick up their other kids from school. There’s no shortage of ways to serve, but doing nothing shouldn’t really be an option.”

In 2006, Denise said a small group of passionate people at the church got together to answer the question, “How can one little church have an impact on the lives of abused, neglected, and at-risk children here in our community?”

“Most foster parents quit fostering within a year of their first placement,” she said. After they’ve spent almost a year getting licensed, then a year later they’re closed. “That’s an incredible waste of resources,” she added.

The result of that small group meeting resulted in Embrace, a ministry “led by a team that developed a strategy to improve outcomes for abused and neglected children by recruiting foster and adoptive families, and providing wrap-around care for the families,” states their website embracetexas.org.

In the beginning, Rhea’s Mill volunteers were encouraged to help with basic needs like meals, and Embrace’s support group provided training for foster families.

Denise said she knew from experience that if Embrace can help sustain existing foster parents, “the longer that they foster, they’ll get a little thicker skin and they’ll get some tools in their tool belt — then the longer they’ll stick with it.”

Denise said for Bruce and her, it took a year of fostering and receiving family support before they would say ‘yes’ to fostering two or three kids at a time.

Serving, growing

In 2007, Denise and Bruce became the first staff members —and missionaries — of Embrace. She became the director of programs, a position she retained until she became the executive director in 2018. Bruce eventually returned to pastoral work.

After years of serving, Embrace is equipped with a small staff and dedicated volunteers who work at building relationships and connections that allow them to create a platform for others to serve children and families directly.

“We link arms with many local nonprofits to help prevent child abuse and keep families stable and whole,” Denise said. “From Direction 61:3 and TRAC, who help us connect with teens aging-out of foster care, to the CASAs and CPS caseworkers who represent specific foster children… it really does take a village. We connect with many families through word of mouth.”

In 2012, Embrace’s founders were lauded on a national level by the North American Council for Adoptable children. This led to them being invited to serve the following year as a voice for the church community, and as an advocate for children and families on the Texas Supreme Court Children’s Commission.

In 2014, Embrace partnered with CPS after securing a Memorandum of Understanding, or agreement, to work with the group.

“This unprecedented partnership allowed Embrace volunteers to work directly with children lingering in foster care, waiting for adoption.” Denise said.

Because Denise and Bruce were already on staff at the time, she said “it was a season of exponential growth for the ministry.”

As a result, a team of partner churches came together to help share the workload and begin the work of finding families for children. Over time, adding to those partnerships and showing what can be done when the church becomes involved, became a large part of what Denise said she does on a regular basis.

Recently, she held a telephone town hall meeting to talk to pastors outside their network about what they do. In other instances, Denise said Embrace hosts “Lunch and Learn” sessions for pastors in the greater Collin County area. In the event a church needs help that’s out of the metro area, Denise will connect them to the needed resources, such as CPS and CASA.

While Texas ranks 46th overall in child and welfare safety, according to everytexan.org, Denise said that she’s really hopeful, nonetheless, as they’ve grown from a small group of grassroots volunteers and ministries trying to solve the problem, and now “there’s someone in almost every corner of Texas trying to do the same thing as Embrace.”

Support foster families

Not everyone needs to adopt a child to impact the life of a foster child or family, says Denise.

“There’s ways that everybody can get involved, she said. “And if everyone could just kind of step up and say, ‘Hey, these are our kids in our community. What would be my piece in this?’ There’s something for everyone who wants to help.”

The director gave a few examples of what’s happening in their church; some of the older ladies get together and sew weighted blankets for kids with special needs in foster care, while a mom of two sets of twins, 5 and under, regularly cooks and delivers meals to the kids in the hotel.

Something as simple as providing a parent’s night out or setting up a meal train can go a long way in helping them feel supported too, she said. If that happens, the families are more likely to continue fostering, then as they continue, they gain skills that equip them to care for more children, older children, and children with more significant disabilities.

“Strong, healthy families equal safety and stability for children,” Denise said.

Foster parents are the ones on the front lines of meeting the daily physical, emotional, spiritual, educational, and recreational needs of children in their care, said Denise. “When we wrap around and support foster families, we help prevent burnout and allow them to focus on the abused and neglected children they’re welcoming into their homes.”

For the Kendricks, Denise said their journey led them to realize they had no concept of how many kids were in foster care, how many stayed in shelters, how many went without placement and how many aged out, “because we were just doing our own little thing and just weren’t aware of what a crisis it was.”

“And so, God’s just really moved our heart towards adoption,” she said

When their biological children were two, four and six, their son came home right before his 16th birthday. They went on to foster a few more, and adopt a few more, including another 16-year-old. They eventually became parents of nine children, and now grandparents of three.

Like many nonprofits, the hope is to one day eliminate the need they are serving, but given the overwhelming statistics — 30,000 Texas kids in foster care — the journey is far from over.

“The field of child welfare is hard on the heart,” she said. “Walking through this brokenness with children and families can fatigue our compassion and leave caseworkers, foster parents, agencies, and CASAs feeling on the verge of burnout.”

Despite all the overwhelming statistics, and the lack of foster families, Denise said she hopes they never lose sight of the kids as individual children, and see them for who they are.

“[That] we wouldn’t lose sight of their little faces and personalities — that we would just continue to be raw to that as opposed to becoming used to it or comfortable or complacent.”

If you’re thinking about foster parenting, Denise says, “Just start taking steps forward. It is impossible to dive in the deep end. Gather information, explore options, pray, and unless there is some insurmountable barrier, keep moving forward.”

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