By LISA PERKINS
TRAVERSE CITY -- While the names and faces of those in need have changed during the past 70 years, the mission of Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan has remained the same.
Strengthening and nurturing children and families by ensuring their safety and well-being was the goal of Dr. Mark Osterlin who, in the 1930s, began searching for safe havens for mistreated and ailing children he encountered during his career as a Traverse City pediatrician.
"Dr. Osterlin realized how many kids were in abusive or neglectful situations and found a way to help them," said Gina Aranki, marketing and public relations director of Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan.
Osterlin turned to the Michigan Children's Aid Society, encouraging the organization to open an office in Traverse City where rural children were able to receive needed medical attention and battered or neglected children found temporary placement in boarding homes and with adoptive families.
More than seven decades later, the private nonprofit organization now known as Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan, provides human and social service programs to a 13 county region in northwest Michigan.
"At any given time we have about 180 children in our foster care system, providing care for more than 400 each year," said Jim Scherrer, executive director of the organization that also places an average of 50-60 special needs children and eight infants into adoptive homes each year.
Staying true to Osterlin's original mission, Child and Family Services through their foster care and adoption programs, places children into safe homes, giving them the support they need to flourish.
"CFS is really an unsung hero in our community," said longtime foster parent and CFS board member, Sheila Morgan of Traverse City.
"The agency provides a huge resource and has a tremendous impact on the people it serves," said Morgan, who along with husband Dennis, is adopting two children after more than 17 years of fostering.
"We are taking these children into our family, explaining to them that it is like a marriage, when you fall in love it is just meant to be," said Morgan, who has two grown children and two grandchildren.
"Having many children in our home has just become the norm for us," said Morgan, who has cared for "countless" children, most in sibling groups of up to seven at a time.
Tami and Jeff Cleland can relate to having a house full of kids. The Lake Ann couple, in addition to their four birth children, has adopted three siblings with the help of CFS.
"We took the class for fostering, really in hopes to adopt," said Tami, noting that they wanted to add a daughter to their young family.
"When they called and asked if we could take a sibling pair, I had to stop for a minute and check with my husband who of course said 'lets do it'," said Tami, who welcomed the 7-year-old girl and her 7-month-old brother into the family that same day in April 2006.
When the children's biological mother gave birth to another child last year, the Clelands were thrilled to include the new baby into their home that they admit is sometimes chaotic but always full of love.
"Her big sister is so glad that she has her blood sibling here to go through this journey with her," Tami said.
It was Todd Endresen's journey as an adopted child that initially peaked his interest in becoming involved with CFS. Though Endresen and his twin sister were adopted as infants in New Jersey, he joined the organization's board of directors when he moved to northern Michigan 15 years ago.
"Adoption has worked out very well for me," said Endresen who recently reconnected with his birth mother and father.
"My birth mother and my mom have developed a kind of relationship, they each validate that they each made the right decision years ago," said Endresen, noting that his experience gives him a unique perspective as a member of the community served by CFS.
"It is the best-kept secret," Endresen said.
"Most people don't realize how many kids are in foster care in northwest Michigan because there are so many fantastic homes, it never becomes a crisis," Endresen said.
In addition to foster care and adoption services, CFS offers family and pregnancy counselling programs, treatment and support for child survivors of sexual abuse, family group decision making demonstration programs and Safe Haven, a supervised visitation program for families that have experienced domestic violence.
"Safe Haven has filled a real need in our community, more than we ever realized it would," said Endresen about the program that allows safe exchange of children between custodial and non-custodial parents when face-to-face meetings can become confrontational. The program has grown from three to 43 families, serving more than 300 children ages two months to 17 years since its inception in 2004.
"Without a doubt, Safe Haven has minimized our stress and conflict," said a client in a testimonial letter about her experience with the program.
"In Safe Haven I have found a network of support that empowers me to keep the focus on my beautiful children. My children have found a community of adults who believe in them and allow them to be just who they are: My children, who are really just like your children, and grandchildren, and neighborhood children. Children whose main focus should be on growing, growing their minds, their bodies, and their spirits," she included in the letter Aranki shared with board of directors.
While Dr. Osterlin may not have envisioned the scope of programs that CFS offers today, his goal of strengthening and nurturing children and families by ensuring their safety and well-being remains the organization's focus.
"We have been responsive to our community's needs, developing more programs that are designed to keep children with their families. We encourage families to draw from our resources and from their family and community support to keep the child at home," Scherrer said.
You can link to the article in the Traverse City Record Eagle by clicking here.