Sunday Conversation: Cindy Mericle, executive director of Love Fosters Hope
Love Fosters Hope has been serving the children and teenagers in foster care in Montgomery County for 19 years.
The organization encourages individuals in foster care to recognize their value and pushes them to pursue their dreams through mentorship and summer camps that seek to build self-esteem. The group also provides assistance and resources to those who age out of the foster care system.
Executive Director Cindy Mericle has been with Love Fosters Hope since the beginning and helped found it as an official non-profit in 2012. Although she has a degree in computer science, her passion for helping children in need placed her on a career path where she has the ability to positively impact the lives of hundreds of children and teens who have been abused or neglected.
Question: Why did you choose this career path?
Mericle: It kind of chose me. I believe that. I have always had a heart for kids that were in foster care. When I was young and I first heard that some children didn’t have moms and dads taking care of them, I couldn’t even process that. All of those details that your mom and dad take care of — I immediately was worried about these children as a child (myself). So it was always on my radar when I dated that that was part of my future.
This was a wonderful way to be able to serve the kids and make a difference in their lives. One of the things that we’ve learned so much about kids that are in foster care is the longer they stay in foster care, a large majority if them become very discouraged. One of the things is every child does want to have a family, does want to have a place to belong. When that doesn’t happen for them, it’s very discouraging for them and they give up hope. That’s one of the reasons that so many of the outcomes for kids aging out of foster care are so bleak. It’s because of the loss of hope and what I love about our organization is a lot of kids find hope when they come to our summer camps, as they’re being mentored, as we provide assistance as they age out of foster care. They rediscover that there are people in this world that do care very much about them. They may not be their mother and father but they become a part of our family. The kids consider Love Fosters Hope a part of their family.
Question: What’s your educational background?
Mericle: I have a degree in computer science and a minor in psychology. I chose to get my degree in computer science, and I was a systems engineer manager for several years, because it was practical. I wanted to know that there would be a job market and that I would always have job security. But this was where my heart was.
Question: How many children are in the various Love Fosters Hope programs?
Mericle: The different programs serve different numbers of kids. This summer during our summer camps and retreat, we will have 199 kids participating in those, from 7 years old up to 19 years old. We are mentoring kids throughout the year and we have been averaging between 40 to 70 teens being mentored. I say averaging because it’s real fluid. We will start mentoring a teenager and then they get moved to a home in Beaumont or south of Houston, so that mentoring relationship is difficult to maintain when someone lives an hour or more away. But our goal this year is to increase the number of kids we’re mentoring — our minimum goal — is 100 teenagers. But that depends on the number of mentors we recruit. Hopefully we can recruit more and serve more teenagers. I’ve been asked by one of the judges in Harris County if we would mentor all of the teenagers in Harris County in foster care. We would love to, but we’re looking for really good mentors.
Question: The organization’s purpose is “to impact the lives of children and teens in foster care who have been abused, neglected or abandoned.” How exactly does it do that?
Mericle: When a child is involved with our camp program, for instance, everything about our camps are designed to celebrate each child, each teenager. They probably have never been in an environment that is more accepting of who they are, that looks for every trait and characteristic that is positive and good about them — and that is what we celebrate. It is truthful things about who this person is. A lot of kids become discouraged and in other environments, they may be considered disciplinary problems because of discouragement and because of the lack of hope.
A lot of kids in foster care are living in survival mode. They’re going from one foster home to the next foster home. They don’t have that stability that is really essential for someone to feel safe. So in this time period that they’re at this camp the kids feel safe. The kids feel like they’re surrounded by people that genuinely care about them and that are for them. We tell them and communicate their value, the truth about — and this is a truth — that they are precious. Every child is precious. These kids do not feel precious but we communicate that in actions even more than words. And what they tell us is they believe it. And they tell us that this experience has changed their lives.
We want them to know that God has a plan for them and it’s a good plan. They need to make good choices so that they don’t prevent that plan from coming to fruition. There’s a lot of negative influences that all teenagers face in this world today — drugs, sex, the possibility of becoming pregnant — and then worse roads. The largest number of people involved in human trafficking are kids from foster care. Anyone that’s getting involved in human trafficking, one thing that come into play is a lack of good self-esteem. So we think that’s really a very important element that every child actually needs and that we are focusing on.
Then we have mentors that are following them throughout the year being a guide, an encourager, someone that they can go to and reflect on their life and their dreams and walk them through making those choices. Someone that will take them to visit college campuses or even visit different job arenas so they can see what it’s really like. Our mentoring is intentional. The relationship is incredibly important, but even more than having a really great relationship with someone who cares about you is someone that’s also trying to guide you and help you plan for a successful life. That seems to be missing a lot in kids that are in foster care.
How are we making an impact? One time this young man told me “Before I met you guys at Love Fosters Hope, I did not believe that there was anybody in the world that really cared about me and I am not the only person who feels this way.” I believe that a lot of the foster homes do care about the kids, but the nature of shifting — when something goes wrong you just move a kid to a new foster home — they may care about them but they’re gone and they’re not a part of their life anymore. They don’t have those long-term consistent relationships. One of the things that we have been able to provide for many of the kids is once they enter our program it doesn’t matter what home they’ve been moved to, we try to find them and bring them back so they are consistently a part of our program. We’ve had some kids that started at 6 years old that are 23 and as young adults they volunteer for our organization.
Question: What would you say foster children need in their life the most?
Mericle: I think foster children — I think every child — needs at least one person that is their champion. That believes in them. Believes that they matter and are significant and that it’s unconditional. I haven’t met anyone yet that hasn’t made mistakes. We all make mistakes. When you are missing out on having parents that are unconditionally loving you and accepting you, you do tend to make mistakes because you don’t have that guidance. Love Fosters Hope is about relationships. It’s about authentic genuine relationships.
Question: Does Love Fosters Hope work with any other organizations such as CASA Child Advocates of Montgomery County?
Mericle: We love the fact that our community has other organizations that are serving the kids in foster care. And what’s really wonderful is we all do very unique things. We have a very great relationship with CASA, CPS and these other groups and we collectively collaborate to do some special programs and projects. We just together held a graduation dinner called “Always Pursue” for the kids in foster care in this community that graduated from high school. We throw a big Christmas party called the “Jingle Bell Christmas” party together. But we are not working with CASA in looking for foster homes.
Question: How can the community help children in foster care?
Mericle: I think one of the sad things is that when people hear about this, I think most of them are touched. Their hearts are stirred and they’re sad about what’s going on. But I feel like people feel overwhelmed and very inadequate — that it could not be a part of their life for them to be an adoptive parent or foster a child. And they may be right that that might not be something that would be a good fit for them. What would be really wonderful is if everybody realized they could do something. Right now we have volunteers that have come to our office to help cut up name tags for our camp next week. There are people folding t-shirts so that everything is organized and ready to go. We have a lot of volunteer opportunities where you get to spend time with the children and the teenagers playing and having a good time with them — being a part of that message of communicating their value.