Staff of The Harvest Foundation, members of the Harvest Youth Board, and the Henry-Martinsville DSS staff are pictured on the site of the future playground which will enhance visitation for the foster care program. Pictured from left to right are Harvest Foundation President Kate Keller, Sheryl Agee, senior operating officer at Harvest, Henry-Martinsville DSS Director Amy Rice, Harvest Youth Board Members Taylor Gary, Chairman Will Gardner and Susanna Lawrence, fiscal assistant supervisor at Henry-Martinsville DSS. Contributed photo. Groups Donate to Set Up Foster Care Playground
Staff of The Harvest Foundation, members of the Harvest Youth Board, and the Henry-Martinsville DSS staff are pictured on the site of the future playground which will enhance visitation for the foster care program. Pictured from left to right are Harvest Foundation President Kate Keller, Sheryl Agee, senior operating officer at Harvest, Henry-Martinsville DSS Director Amy Rice, Harvest Youth Board Members Taylor Gary, Chairman Will Gardner and Susanna Lawrence, fiscal assistant supervisor at Henry-Martinsville DSS. Contributed photo.

With visitations limited, local groups fund foster program playground equipment.

MARTINSVILLE – Running across a person unaffected by the pandemic isn’t likely. For many, the changes for the sake of public health are a minor inconvenience. Yet for some, it’s a truly heartbreaking situation.

For children in the foster care system, COVID-19 brought about even more alterations to an already interrupted childhood. While foster families opened their hearts and homes to children in need, the pandemic postponed some biological family meetings.

Recognizing the issue, several groups in Martinsville came together and created a solution. Partnering with the Henry-Martinsville Department of Social Services, the Harvest Foundation and Harvest Youth Board provided respective $10,000 and $5,000 grants. The Martinsville UpTown Rotary Club, the Henry County Rotary Club and the Rotary Club of Martinsville donated a combined $12,000.

The funds will go toward purchasing playground equipment for a new family-friendly visitation area near the DSS office.

The outdoor space allows open-air visits with safe play equipment while keeping the staff close to the agency in case of an emergency. Following COVID-19 guidelines, the changes will allow families to return to regular visitation schedules.

“Our main focus is to provide safe, quality family time which will ultimately ensure reunification between a child and their family,” said Amy Rice, director of Henry-Martinsville DSS. “The support we have received will enable us to uplift and empower families with a healthy outdoor environment. Children will benefit from outdoor physical activity and interact with their parents on a playground built from community collaboration and partnership. For families who are seeing their most challenging times, this foundation of collaboration allows us to build positive futures for years to come.”

The pesky pandemic

Children in foster care are not randomly placed in the system. However, just because a child enters the system doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve suffered abuse. For some kids, a family tragedy occurred, leaving them without a home. For others, a caregiver’s illness resulted in a hospital or rehabilitative stay. And yes, for some, abuse, neglect, drug use or crime certainly played a role.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated rather than eliminated home-based tensions. Rice noted that families experienced added stressors that could result in abuse or neglect. That increase led to an increased need for foster homes.

No matter the foster child’s unique circumstance, meeting at a playground gives a sense of normalcy to a situation that is sometimes difficult for children to handle. Rice noted that that was intentional.

“Our goal is to safely reunite families,” Rice said. “A playground allows for a more relaxed, safe environment for children and biological families to spend time together.”

Conversation corridor

The group will install Cunningham Recreation’s New Brunswick model in the large, grassy area behind the DSS agency. Complete with two slides, a bridge, a tunnel, stairs, spiral pole and more, the playground features fun opportunities.

In addition to the playground equipment, donated funds will also purchase outdoor fixtures for open-air conversations in a visitation area.

“A safe and stable home environment is important for the happiness of our children, their social and emotional well-being, and even their long-term success,” said Sheryl Agee, senior operating officer at The Harvest Foundation. “What better way to support the future of our community, than working together as partners to provide a safe place for family visitations that can strengthen and build strong family relationships?”

Following pandemic guidelines, staff or volunteers will disinfect the playground before and after each use.

Youth helping youth

Different from many fundraising efforts, adults aren’t the only people monetarily backing the campaign. The Harvest Youth Board, created in June 2015, regularly develops projects and initiatives that impact young people in Martinsville-Henry County. The visitation playground initiative is one of the group’s newest endeavors.

“When we look at a grant, we make sure it provides opportunities dealing with the betterment of the local youth; whether it be through health, education or community initiatives. When the Department of Social Services reached out to us about this project, we saw that the idea of providing amazing opportunities for the youth was clear and present,” said Will Gardner, Harvest Youth Board chairman. “Personally, I feel that family reunification can solve so many common problems that we see in society, and I’m so excited that we could help the Department of Social Services in their effort.”

Members of the Harvest Youth Board supported the project because of its impact on youth in the community.

“I know that reconnecting parents and children is a difficult and emotional situation and that having a safe space for kids to feel relaxed and at ease is vital to the process. Because of that, I think this grant is going to benefit the youth immensely by giving kids in foster care a safe space to help them reconnect with their families,” said Cristiano DiMaro, Harvest Youth Board member. “I thought it seemed like a perfect project for the youth board to be a part of.”

Taylor Gary, chair of the Harvest Youth Board Grants Committee, also expressed her interest in the project.

“I am very excited about this grant because I think it is a great opportunity for our board to impact children not only now but for years to come,” Gary said.

Rotary at the ready

Not one, not two, but three local clubs joined forces and finances, supporting the project.

“Our three area Rotary Clubs saw great value in investing in this project for the positive benefits it will have in the lives of children and families in Martinsville and Henry County,” said Beverly Pitzer, president of the Martinsville UpTown Rotary Club. “Henry-Martinsville DSS has been working on funding for the playground for quite some time, and the timing was perfect to contribute funds through the Rotary District 7570 Grant and to participate in over 70 hours of service opportunities.”

Happy memories

There’s no official opening date in mind yet. However, Rice said she hopes to install the playground equipment by the end of the year.

There’s also discussion about allowing neighborhood children to enjoy the area, but that depends on a few factors.

“This option is still being considered by DSS and the County of Henry,” Rice said. “We will know our guidelines and availability for the playground and visitation area before it opens.”

With the project making headway, Rice also hopes loved ones will make memories.

“Our biggest hope is to safely reunify families,” Rice said. “We are hopeful this playground will provide joyful memories for all who use the equipment.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at amie@couriernewsroom.com