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D.A. Blodgett - St. John's: 125 Years of Helping Kids

Twenty-five perent of children in Kent County are living in poverty. In the face of this startling statistic, D.A. Blodgett - St. John's, West Michigan's oldest child welfare organization, strives to make a difference. 
D.A. Blodgett and St. John's Home have been around as separate organizations since the late 1800s. It was only in 2010 that these two groups, both dedicated to the welfare of children, decided to merge, bringing 18 unique programs and services together. Now called D.A. Blodgett - St. John's, it is the oldest child welfare in West Michigan, and has no intention of slowing down when it comes to the mission of ensuring that all area children and families are safe, secure, and strong.
Executive Director Sharon Loughridge says, "As an agency, we're kind of unique in that we provide the entire gamut of services that vulnerable children and families would need."
D.A. Blodgett - St. John's provides services in the areas of mentoring, residential care, foster care, emergency shelter, adoption services, and school and counseling services. They facilitate the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program and Sisters in Support, a program that essentially provides a 'big sister' to a young mother who may have no support network. In-home services can provide a social worker to work with families who need help. Amachi mentors children with an incarcerated parent.
They also provide infant international adoption services as well as an open adoption service that allows young mothers to select the family that will adopt their child. "Our families create a portfolio," Loughridge says. "We try to match the birth mom up with three potential [families]. Usually, they have a very open relationship."
Another crucial service is the KidsFirst Emergency Shelter, which helped 476 children who were removed from their homes in 2011. KidsFirst, located in two of the homes on the St. John's Home campus in northeast Grand Rapids, can provide a safe, temporary space before trying to help children either return to their homes or find foster homes and eventually, adoption. Built in 1992, St. John's Home is a departure from the sterile environment one might picture when they think of a shelter. "The agency started 125 years ago as an orphanage and moved into an institutional-style building over on Leonard St., and then in 1992, they built this campus. It was designed in a large part through input from the kids," Loughridge says.
The reasons why a child might come to St. John's Home are varied. Abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and poverty are a few Loughridge ticks off. "Twenty five percent of children in Kent County are living in poverty," Loughridge says. "Sometimes, there is a substance abuse factor involved. We get children in the middle of the night where their parents are running a [methamphetamine] lab."
Not every case is so severe, and D.A. Blodgett - St. John's begins each case with a goal of sending the child back home. "Right from day one, we're working with those parents," Loughridge says. "We work on a treatment program. Thirty-five to 40 percent [of the children] go back home."
Children who come to the shelter who cannot go back home with immediacy are usually placed into a foster or relative home within three days of arrival. In fact, D.A. Blodgett - St. John's is the largest provider of foster care and adoption services in the community. If a child is ultimately unable to go back to their own home, as in instances of abuse or when a parent's rights are terminated, the organization attempts to place the child in a permanent adoptive home. In 60 percent of these cases, Loughridge says, the child's foster parent will choose to adopt them. D.A. Blodgett - St. John's provides a support network for foster parents, complete with a social worker, licensing worker, and training.
The St. John's Home campus also provides residential care. "We're the only open residential program [in the area]," Loughridge says. Some children who have experienced abuse or neglect may need special care, or have behavioral issues that must first be addressed before being placed in a home. Loughridge cites one child who spent the first several years of her life in a closet. The staff at St. John's is dedicated to rescuing children from these extreme cases of neglect and ensuring them a bright future.
The facility has room for 46 kids, and accepts children from all over the state. Children in the Grand Rapids Public School System (GRPS) are often kept in their school of origin, but can also attend Lighthouse Academy through a recent partnership between the school and D.A. Blodgett - St. John's. "It's a good fit for our kids," Loughridge says. "They can get very frustrated in general education classes with teachers who don't have a good understanding of what they've been through."
Each shelter looks like a real house, with real bedrooms and bathrooms. A communal kitchen and eating space allows residents to help prepare meals and enjoy them together. Each house has an assigned therapist who works with the kids. "We also have a performing arts specialist and an adventure arts specialist," Loughridge says. Children can learn to dance, play an instrument, sew, or make arts and crafts. The adventure specialist, Loughridge says, keeps the children active with a ropes course, physical education, and outdoor activities. Big Brothers and Big Sisters are assigned to the children as tutors and help them with homework and other activities.
And in concert with how the shelter does not look like an institution, the children are not treated as though they are in one. There is no "levels system," Loughridge says. "Our philosophy is that these kids really just need to know there are people that care about them. They learn through experience and by doing things. It helps with their perception of themselves, and if you have a good perception of yourself, you're going to have a much better attitude about moving forward in your life."
Children age 14 and older can go to classes that help them with just that. Education on topics like public transit, grocery shopping, laundry, and cooking prepare kids for their adult lives, and Loughridge says they focus considerably on education. "We're very blessed with some donation dollars that are specifically for education purposes for our kids," she says. "We're talking to our kids about higher education. A little over 80 percent of our kids that graduated high school went on to college." These donation dollars also help fund taking practice ACT tests, visiting college campuses, and helping with some expenses.

Other donations may include tickets to cultural events or gym memberships. One donor Loughridge mentions owns a ranch in Montana. He invites 8-10 kids each year to work on the ranch where they learn to horseback ride and go backpacking.
D.A. Blodgett - St. John's also works with Kent Schools Services Network (KSSN). This program brings the services families need right into their school. "We have eight schools -- seven in GRPS and one in Kentwood," Loughridge says. Each school has two social workers, a nurse, and a DHS worker. "The neighborhood school becomes the hub for the family."
A family struggling with utilities or health issues might be able to work with KSSN to resolve problems. This is a good way of working up front with parents, which is what Loughridge says needs to be done in order to lower the number of children who are removed from their homes.
It's the interconnectedness of all these programs that really makes D.A. Blodgett - St. John's a unique and powerful program. "There is no wrong door here," Loughridge says. "We have a real energy between [all of our] programs. When we have a young child in residential care with terminated parental rights, we can get the adoption social worker connected with the residential therapist instead of an agency who doesn't do adoption reaching out to some other agency. Or another example would be with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. We've been able to match up a number of kids in residential care [with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program], so they have that one adult who's focused on them."
Last year, D.A. Blodgett - St. John's accrued 63,776 volunteer hours, put in by over 600 volunteers. To learn more about D.A. Blodgett - St. John's work or to learn how you can make an impact in a child's life, visit them online here
J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media. 

Photography by Adam Bird. 
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