Luling youth ministers aim to foster children, help mend families

Tim and Stephanie O'Donnell with their children.

All of the trials and tribulations she and her husband have gone through, all of the work they’ve done to get past those traumas, Stephanie O’Donnell believes will culminate in this next step in their lives.

“God put this in our hearts,” said the Luling woman and mother of two. “It feels like something that’s been in the works for awhile.”

O’Donnell, with her husband Tim, are in the process of becoming foster parents, something they each see as something of a calling. The two met through their church work in children’s ministry, bonding through their mutual soft spot for teaching youth.

But their ultimate goal through fostering is not to make their family larger in the long term, but to help and to heal. The O’Donnells seek to be co-parents and caregivers to children whose birth parents may then have the opportunity to receive care and get help for themselves, in the end allowing the children to be reunited with their now-healthier parents.

“All of the tools we’ve learned in our lives, we can take those and help somebody else,” Stephanie said. “The idea is to have a lot of interaction with the (birth) parents themselves. They find the more foster parents talk to the birth parents, it encourages them to work in the system.  It’s not about taking someone’s children and saying, ‘goodbye and good luck.’ We’re taking them in and ministering to the whole family.”

The more the couple has learned about the process, she said, the more their own per-conceptions have changed.

“The majority of these kids, all really, are coming in from really hard places,” Stephanie said. “The first reaction might be to think that these are bad parents, but in the majority of cases these are people just like us, people who may have fallen on hard times and just need a helping hand. They want their children, but you have times where the parents themselves come from the system as well, maybe from living in foster care themselves … it becomes a cycle where nobody gains the right tools to care for children, or even themselves, in a healthy way.”

But the prospect was scary, both admitted. It would be an entirely new experience, and might require different parenting skills than their experience so far.

Moreover, there was the simple fear that at some point, they would have to be okay with letting the child go.

Tim said during a meeting of a support group for foster parents that the two attended, someone made a statement that landed and resonated with the couple – and ultimately set them full speed ahead on this path.

“It hit us both,” Tim said. “He said, you might be feeling worried about letting them go. Then he said, it’s really not about you. It’s about them. And when he said that, with us each having that really strong heart for kids, well, we’re sold.”

The two first met at church, though it took a little while: Tim’s schedule includes overnight shift work, so often they wouldn’t cross paths at mass despite being part of the same church community. But their ministry goals eventually brought them together. Tim, who had taught children up to their teen years, wanted to perhaps return to teaching younger children again. This came just as Stephanie was beginning her own journey into children’s ministry, and was seeking someone to serve with her.

A mutual friend connected them, and the two began to bond – not just over their work in the church, but also their respective past. Both had experienced different hardships in their upbringing, and the two would address much of it together.

“Both of us have trauma in our past, and we actually took the first year of our marriage to deal with those things,” said Tim. “But after that, we decided we’re going to burn that bridge behind us. There’s no exit strategy here. When we hit hard times, we’re going to be adults and we’re going to deal with it.”

Though they ultimately wed, Tim said “she didn’t make it easy for me” at first.

“She’s pretty reserved, and was pretty confident that we could be friends, but wasn’t sure if we were meant to be together long term,” Tim said. “But for the first time in my life, I didn’t want to be the wallflower, the person isolating myself. I felt like I had to stride to pursue her. She had the same heart I did toward the important things … ministry and family. So I didn’t give up.”

The tough times growing up are also part of what they each believe creates such a connection with children who might be walking similar paths.

“I found my relationship with Jesus, and I was drawn to children’s ministry. When I turned 30, I finally jumped in. I didn’t always know if I was the right person to work with kids, because you look at your own life and think, ‘I’ve made so many dumb mistakes myself.’ But I learned quickly that everything I wanted was right then and there. Kids needed to know they had a safe place and a fun place to express themselves and find those tools to grow and be healthy, and I wanted to do what I could to supply that.”

The two recently moved into a bigger house to create more room to care for what should soon be an expanded family setting. They’re also saving for a larger vehicle and some home modifications to meet the state’s requirements for home safety – they’ve received some help from those willing to help them with their cause via a GoFundMe page (titled The O’Donnell Fostering Fund). They estimate they’ll be finished with the certification process within the next few weeks – and then the biggest step follows.

“It’s a big, scary thing in a lot of ways,” Stephanie said. “But we have no doubt … when we went through the classes and learned the statistics, how many kids and families are in need, we so want to help these people. God blessed us so much and now we want to bless people from those blessings we’ve received.”

 

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