On the Southeast Side, foster-care center does right by the legacy of Ada S. McKinley

Kids come there via DCFS referrals because of abuse or neglect. It’s a unique program. And it’s changing lives.

SHARE On the Southeast Side, foster-care center does right by the legacy of Ada S. McKinley
(From left) Ada S. McKinley Emergency Foster Care Center staff members Jalisha Smith, Mary Thomas and Eve Holt.

(From left) Ada S. McKinley Emergency Foster Care Center staff members Jalisha Smith, Mary Thomas and Eve Holt.

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If you passed by the Ada S. McKinley Emergency Foster Care Center on the Southeast Side, you would have no idea lives are being saved there.

The six-unit apartment building named for the renowned social reformer has a well-maintained yard and blends in with the other multi-unit apartment buildings on the quiet block.

There’s no way to tell the apartment building houses a foster-care program that serves neglected and abused children.

Or that this is a place where children come to heal and young people with love for those children come to help them recover from the trauma they have experienced.

“Our kids are brought here on a referral from the Department of Children and Family Services,” said Mary Thomas, director of the emergency foster care shelter. “It could be sexual or physical abuse, and there’s also a wide range of neglect situations such as educational neglect, medical neglect and substance abuse,

“This is part of the great legacy of the late, great Ada Sophia McKinley. This program was developed 13 years ago to provide a home-like environment for youth in transition. We are like a hybrid model of a foster home in the community.”

I toured the building, and there’s nothing about the apartments that would make you think of a group shelter.

Rooms are fully furnished — with sofas, dining and bedroom furnishings, flat-screen TVs, air-conditioning and art on the walls.

In a downstairs unit, there’s space carved out for teens to play Xbox, and toddlers can run off some energy.

“The reason we wanted to set up the professional foster-care model was that we didn’t want our kids to be further traumatized,” Thomas said. “This makes it a little more home-like versus feeling like you are in an orphanage.”

Eve Holt, 24, is excited about starting her job there as a professional parent.

“I feel like I’ll be living my purpose,” Holt said. “I was adopted, so I feel like it is something that I have to do. I went through the system. I’ve been in foster care, and I have had guardians and all that, and I want to be the person I needed when I was younger.”

Professional foster parents live in their units rent-free. Everything is provided for them to run their households, including groceries. They are assisted with meal preparation if needed. They also have access to an on-site social worker 24/7 who can help if a crisis arises.

The children “have a connection with their professional foster parent, who then oversees them,” Thomas said. “It’s not a different person cooking your meals or coming to a shift. The parent makes sure that their hygiene needs are met, their nutritional needs are met, and their educational needs are met.”

Jalisha Smith, 25, has worked for the program for two years as a respite relief care provider. She doesn’t live in the building but spends a lot of time with the children.

“One of my goals, when I take them out on activities, is to not only take them to places to have fun but also where they can experience new things and learn new things,” she said. “I want to make a difference. When you think about it, all children want the same things. They want to feel supported. So, if I can provide that, that’s my main goal.”

The professional parents are employees of Ada S. McKinley Community Services, paid a salary of $32,000 to $38,000 annually. They receive a signing bonus of $5,000 and benefits that include health, dental, vision and a retirement plan. They also get sick days and holidays.

But there has to be more of a motivation to take on this challenge than the benefits package, Smith said.

“They have to be compassionate,” she said. “They have to have empathy. A great professional parent would be someone that loves kids.”

Smith sees her job as a “humbling profession” that allows her to self-reflect.”

“The number of children who have asked me can I go home with you just breaks my heart every time,” she said.

To find out more, call the Ada S. McKinley Community Services Foster Parent Recruitment Hotline at (773) 602-2660, extension 3243.

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