The last six months have opened Jennifer Roberts’ eyes to the impossible decisions moms living in poverty or fleeing domestic violence face every day. The Oklahoma City mom of three recently opened OkCity Crisis Nursery to care for kids in crisis, realizing along the way that offering a hand up to the adults who love them is the best way to ensure a strong family going forward. Roberts has met moms carrying heavy burdens, working as hard as they can to provide for their children, and, along with an impressive team of volunteers, served as the light to families in what previously felt like hopeless situations. Rather than choosing between going to work while leaving kids in a questionable childcare situation or caring for kids themselves and not working, moms are empowered to choose quality childcare and jobs that can sustain their families.
Answering the call
Roberts has long been passionate about helping children, participating in various church outreach ministries over the years, but she was unsure how to make a long-term, lasting difference for vulnerable kids. After the death of a friend’s child and the seemingly constant onslaught of negative media stories about Oklahoma kids being neglected or abused, Roberts felt a strong pull to do something. She knew fostering or adopting weren’t the next steps for her family, but kids in limbo and difficult situations were the exact demographic she wanted to help.
After many sleepless nights researching how other states are working to prevent child abuse and neglect, Roberts stumbled upon the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery in Spokane, Wash. For 30 years the nursery has provided 24-hour child care, parent education, crisis counseling and referrals to community agencies with the intent of strengthening families. Parents who come to the nursery are typically having trouble providing safe shelter and care for their kids, sometimes as a result of domestic violence, homelessness or substance abuse.
“I knew immediately we didn’t have anything like that here and we needed to do it,” said Roberts, “even though I didn’t know the first thing about running a nonprofit or daycare.”
Roberts quit her full-time sales job last October and began fundraising. An anonymous donor helped the organization find a location for the nursery, and Roberts successfully completed the process to become a licensed childcare provider through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. Knowing the nursery would be caring for many children in traumatic situations, Roberts worked with Edmond-based Angels Foster Family Network to better understand trust-based relational intervention and learn how to provide trauma-informed care.
OkCity Crisis Nursery opened in May, providing free, 24-hour care to any family who needs the service. As of early August, Roberts and her team had already welcomed more than 300 children through their doors. Currently the nursery is entirely funded by individual donations and staffed by volunteers. The nursery space is cozy and welcoming, equipped to care for up to seven kids at a time. Kids are dropped off and picked up anytime throughout the day, and Roberts and her team have cared for as many as 18 children in a 24-hour period. Referrals to OkCity Crisis Nursery come primarily from DHS, hospitals and current clients.
Parents have made use of the free childcare for a wide variety of reasons, like a mom and dad headed to the hospital to have a baby, with no safe family or friends nearby to watch older kids; a mom interviewing for a job that will provide a better life for she and her kids; moms fleeing domestic abuse who can more easily collect the documents and complete steps to secure housing or food stamps without kids tagging along; a mom working the overnight shift or a second or third job; or kids in the foster care system who need a safe, loving place to stay while case workers find the best foster family fit.
“Many people have resources or friends that can help, but a lot of these people don’t have that,” said Roberts. “They get stuck in how to survive today rather than how to get out of a situation. They get overwhelmed by [ongoing] crises and just shut down. They just need a little help.”
Loving kids by serving parents
Roberts often gets asked if she fears parents dropping off kids and never coming back, a question that now causes her to bristle since she better understands the hardships many of her clients endure. She’s also quick to defend the parents who’ve made use of their free services, saying she hasn’t seen any signs of abuse or poor parenting.
“These are good moms, working overnight, working second jobs to pay their bills,” said Roberts. “They care about their kids and want them to be in a safe place.”
Often parents who come to the nursery for the first time are wary, needing the childcare but unsure whether Roberts and her team can be trusted. Some fear Roberts is involved with DHS, and she reassures parents that though she has a positive working relationship with the department, she’s not required to provide DHS with any more than the basic forms parents must fill out for any licensed childcare.
“Once they know I’m not going to take their kids, they don’t have to worry about private information getting out, they see it’s a safe place for them and their children, then we can get a plan together,” said Roberts.
While the short-term fix OkCity Crisis Nursery provides is childcare, what Roberts aspires to provide is a hand up to the families she serves, connecting them to local resources to meet their needs.
“I usually give them my own phone [to call] because a lot of them don’t have phones,” said Roberts. “We help get their resume together, get ready for job interviews and then we’ll watch their kids while they go do it. Before, they were dragging their kids all around trying to take care of all this stuff. It’s just too much.”
Roberts admits she once thought the plight of moms like those the nursery helps would be fairly simple to extricate herself from, with just a little planning and work, were she in their shoes. She assumed, like she believes many others do, they could easily get a second job or apply for food stamps or find the resources they needed. She didn’t consider all the potential extenuating circumstances someone living in poverty, fear or crisis could face.
“If you are fleeing from a situation that is dangerous, you might not have your birth certificate or ID or a car,” said Roberts. “You also may not have an address, which means you can’t get food stamps.”
Nursery volunteers help moms acquire documentation and housing, required to qualify for food stamps and for many other local services, like Infant Crisis Services, an emergency food and diaper pantry. As volunteers alleviate childcare burdens and provide listening ears and caring hearts, families gain hope. Roberts has watched volunteers build relationships with clients, which occasionally extend outside of their walls. A 33-weeks-pregnant mom and a volunteer discovered they have kids the same age, so the two have built a friendship and enjoy playdates together.
“Some of our volunteers have been through some of the same things and can tell [clients] how they overcame [their situation],” said Roberts. “We are connecting people with resources and helping them build their village.”
Caring for kids in crisis
When the stress and uncertainty of securing quality childcare is alleviated, parents can better focus on their next steps to improve their situations. Rather than worry about whether their kids can acclimate to the rules and climate of OkCity Crisis Nursery, parents are reassured that each child receives individualized attention and control over what his or her experience entails. Other than an expectation that kids are kind to each other and stay safe, there aren’t many rules at OkCity Crisis Nursery.
“We are not a daycare, and we tell every parent and kid who comes in that,” said Roberts, an allusion to both the fact it’s not a long-term solution and that kids can play basketball in the living room if they so choose. “We spoil them in the short term and don’t say no very much. It’s more like going to a friend’s or grandparent’s house.”
Kids can go outside with volunteers when they want to, have a snack or eat a meal anytime and, truly, play basketball in the living room.
“This is a safe place to have fun,” said Roberts. “They just want to play, and it helps them forget about whatever they are going through.”
The most popular part of the nursery is the kitchen, always fully stocked with meals and snacks, always open. Community members sign up to provide meals through the nursery’s Meal Train account, which Roberts says takes a big burden off their volunteers, previously trying to provide care and make meals. Because the kids feel secure and aren’t asked probing questions about their situations, Roberts says that often means they feel comfortable opening up with volunteers, which has been especially meaningful for nervous foster children staying at the nursery while they await placement.
For children who need a place to stay for more than 24 hours, Roberts works with Safe Families Oklahoma, an organization with a similar mission to support at-risk children and parents, keeping families together and kids out of the foster care system, when possible, by providing longer-term childcare.
In addition to providing emotional support to parents beyond their kids’ stay at the nursery, volunteers seek to meet some of their physical needs. Kids leave OkCity Crisis Nursery with as many snacks as they can carry, and families are offered clothing, diapers, wipes, formula and gift cards, all donated by nursery supporters.
A sibling pair going into foster care recently spent time at the nursery, and Roberts was able to provide them clothes, backpacks and pairs of Adidas shoes.
“It was really nice stuff another mom had donated,” said Roberts. “The 14-year-old boy had nothing for school, and he was so excited to have cool shoes and a backpack. It’s a little thing, but it really means a lot to them.”
Another sibling pair, twin 4-month-old boys in the foster care system, needed a place to stay for a few hours while their caseworker found a placement.
“The case worker was distraught because it’s really hard for them to do that when the babies are at their office for hours at time,” Roberts said.
All the boys had when they arrived were their carseats and a single can of formula. Roberts said the baby boys were held and snuggled all day by their team of volunteers. The caseworker found a foster family who agreed to the placement and came right away to pick up the babies from the nursery.
Though very willing, Roberts said the family was obviously feeling overwhelmed as they’d previously only taken placements of teens and had no baby gear or supplies. The nursery provided a months’ supply of diapers, wipes, formula and clothing. Perhaps even more important, because she and volunteers had spent all day getting to know the little guys, they were able to give their new foster mom some information about the babies’ temperaments.
“She was so scared and she was already doing this heroic thing,” said Roberts. “Instead of her going in blind, we were able to tell her what we learned about them, like that one seemed to have acid reflux and liked to be held in the carrier. And, ‘Oh by the way, do you need a carrier? Here, take this one.’”
Perhaps the most touching, and extreme, family story Roberts has gotten to be part of was that of a dad whose child was kidnapped by the biological mother in Texas and brought to Oklahoma. When police located and were able to rescue the child, the typical next step would have been to place him in state custody until the dad, driving from Texas, could arrive to be reunited with him. Instead, Roberts was able to care for the child in
“That was our first police escort to bring a child,” said Roberts. “The dad came in the door from Dallas, the little boy was yelling he was so excited to see him and dad was crying. And that’s a child that didn’t have to go into custody.”
Strength in community
WalletHub recently released comparisons of child neediness across states, with Oklahoma rated the seventh worst state for the welfare of children. Oklahoma is the fifteenth worst state for the percentage of kids in households with below poverty income, the seventh for child food insecurity rate, seventh for the percentage of kids in foster care and twenty-second for the child and youth homelessness rate.
The opening of OkCity Crisis Nursery comes at a time when Oklahoma kids and families are vulnerable, and as Roberts has found, strengthening local families and helping parents improve their situations has a direct positive impact on kids. But the nursery’s mission can’t be sustained without community support.
“We are lucky we’ve had a huge community backing from the start,” said Roberts, who’s relied on the generosity of individuals and families to fund her passion project. “Even people giving $20 here and there really
In addition to financial donations, OkCity Crisis Nursery relies entirely on volunteers, with no paid staff. Potential volunteers must undergo a background check. Once approved, volunteers sign up for one hour a month (or more) on a day and time of their choosing. Volunteers can bring their kids with them as long as it does not put the nursery over capacity. Those built-in playmates have been a great source of fun and helped alleviate fear for kids being dropped off. Community members can also sign up to bring a meal or donate individually packaged snacks, bottled water or gift cards. Roberts has gotten emotional when previous clients bring back clothing their kids have outgrown or other donations, an opportunity to pay it forward as thanks for the help they received.
By making donations and referring their friends who need help, these client moms are providing the greatest source of affirmation for Roberts and her team that their services are improving lives, strengthening families and keeping kids safe. For more information about OkCity Crisis Nursery, and how you can help, visit www.crisisnurseryokc.com.