Most people have never heard of “removal day,” but in the world of foster care, it’s usually one of the most traumatic days of a child’s life. “When I heard that a child was removed, I always thought, ‘Well, that's a good thing’,” says Ronda Paulson from Elizabethton. “They're going to be safe. But, it's also the hardest day for them.”
When she and her husband, Corey, who were college sweethearts, first became foster parents in 2014, the experience truly opened their eyes to the reality of the situation. She says to imagine, as a child, going to school one morning and then that afternoon, as you are about to leave, being greeted by your principal, your guidance counselor, and a case worker and told you are not going home.
Even though that child’s home life may be chaotic and unhealthy, that’s all he or she knows at that time. “All of a sudden you don't know where mom is,” says Ronda. “You love mama; it doesn't matter what she’s done. You want to go to your home. It doesn't matter what the conditions are. You may have pets that you're wanting to see. All of your possessions are there. Oftentimes, most children enter foster care with nothing, truly nothing.”
Their first foster child was a 9-month-old red-headed baby boy named Isaiah. Because their son, Mac, was 9 years old and daughter, Sophie, was 12, they didn’t have any baby items in the house. “He literally had an outfit that didn't fit and a roach-infested diaper bag,” she says.
The more Ronda learned about the foster care system, the harder it became to not do more. The child welfare system, she says, is struggling. There are not enough foster parents or facilities, so when removed, these kids wait for placement in an office.
Recalls Ronda, “I had a moment with God and I heard him say, ‘These are my children, what are you going to do?’ At first I told Him, no. I'm a cheer and dance coach; I have two children. But I felt like every step of the way, He was pursuing me.”
Eventually, says Ronda, she just couldn't say no anymore. “We created Isaiah 117 House as a nonprofit in February of 2017, and we opened our very first home in June of 2018 in Elizabethton.”
Today, there are 11 Isaiah 117 homes in operation in eight states, with another 13 in construction, and many more to come. So far, the nonprofit has served more than 3,000 children.
“They’re hungry, they're tired, they're confused and sad, and they're convinced that they've done something wrong,” she says. “What we do is we step in, and instead of waiting in a sterile office for hours, they come to a home with big, fluffy furniture. If they’re hungry, we've got a fully stocked kitchen. And if they want to take a bath, we've got bubble baths and Elmo bath toys. Anything they need, we provide: new shoes, new shirts, new pants, new backpacks, new pillows, new blankets, new stuffed animals. Everything is new.”
Pre-COVID, a child's stay was anywhere from eight to 12 hours; now, it’s closer to 48.
The number of children in a home varies depending on needs and the ages and sex of the children. “We want to keep our ministry focus very personal, very intimate, so usually our homes only have about five or six children at a time. Our goal is to reduce trauma for these children. We set out to lavish love on them on their hardest day because we've learned that with the way the brain processes trauma, no one ever forgets removal day. And so, we want to step in with God's love and grace and reminders that they are loved, and truly set them up for a different trajectory as they enter the foster care system.”
Isaiah 117 does not receive any state funding. “I believe that this was never the state's mission or calling, and so all of our money comes from private foundations, churches and individuals,” says Ronda.
Monetary gifts and clothing are always needed. On its website, people can choose a specific location where they would like their money or donations to go. People also may volunteer their time.
“I’m just blown away by all the ways I’ve seen God mobilize His people. We learn about coming together to do what we're called to do, and that's what I see in community after community. I see God's people stepping out, giving of what they have. It's just been a beautiful picture of what can happen when God's people join together,” Ronda says.
Today, Ronda and Corey’s family has grown. Instead of two children, there are four. “We adopted Isaiah, who is now 7 ½, and then we adopted his full-sibling brother as well. Eli, who was 3 weeks when he came to us, is five and the baby of the family. We also have a dog named Millie and a cat named Figaro. It just feels like this was the family we were always supposed to have.”