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Model Community Provides Families and More to Foster Children

There is an old saying that "it takes a village to raise a child." In the midwestern American state of Illinois there is a special place that takes that message to heart. Hope Meadows is a community built around the special needs of children who, until they moved there, had no families of their own. Now they have much more.

The winding street lined with mailboxes and houses with manicured lawns looks like many residential neighborhoods in the United States.

"When you drive through it just looks like a wonderful neighborhood to live in. You can't tell where Hope starts and the rest of the community begins," says Michael Marks.

But Marks knows the five square blocks in Rantoul, Illinois, that make up Hope Meadows are different. He's program director for Generations of Hope, which runs the community.

The organization's mission is to find permanent families for foster children. Nine families currently live in Hope Meadows, all with foster children: children whose biological parents are dead or have been declared unfit to raise them.

"Families come with the understanding that they will have children placed with them as foster children with the intention of adoption," Marks says, adding there is space at Hope Meadows for 12 families, so they are recruiting.

"Hope is a community that will support the children who don't usually get adopted out of foster care. These are children who have sibling groups. These are children with strong special needs, who need an intensive support community to function well."

At Hope Meadows, foster children get that support with a full-time staff that includes an on-site counselor, social worker, and social programs director. In addition, 50 older residents have moved here from across the United States to spend their retirement years, providing support to the children and their parents.

Maryln Bonnell has lived in Hope Meadows for a total of six years. After the first four years she and her husband moved to Georgia for a while for health reasons, but she was eager to return. "This was like coming home."

Children have always been a part of Bonnell's life. "I worked with youth groups at church. I had four children of my own. We always, always had kids in the house." When she read about Hope Meadows, she says, "I saw that there was a need, and I just felt like there was something I could do."

Like all of the senior residents of Hope Meadows, Bonnell puts in at least six hours a week volunteering in the community. She's taught sewing, crafts and cooking, and started a Girl Scout troupe.

For the 40 children who live here, like Ayden Davis, 13, the seniors become extended family. "You can go to a senior's house and they are nice, like an extra grandma and grandpa. Sometimes we go into their house and play with toys, or go to IGC and do activities."

The IGC, Intergenerational Center, is where seniors and children gather after school to share a snack and play games like bingo. On the outside, it looks like every other house in the neighborhood. But inside, instead of bedrooms upstairs, there's a library, arts and crafts room, and classroom for tutoring. In the basement, there's a computer resource room and playroom. And the main floor is one big open space for meetings, parties and after-school activities.

Hope Meadows was founded in 1994 by Brenda Krause Eheart, who had been doing research on foster children. She learned that many adoptions of foster children failed because the parents couldn't handle the special needs of the children, many of whom had learning disabilities or emotional problems. She wanted to create a community of care to support foster families.

Carolyn Casteel, interim director of Generations of Hope, says the children who grow up at Hope Meadows reflect that care in their own behavior. "They are certainly growing up to be some of the most caring children you will ever find in the world, because that is the environment they are growing up in. They get the love from their new family, they get the love from the seniors, and they are now reciprocating that love."

Ayden Davis, for example, helps out several of his "grandmas" by caring for their pets or by watering their flowers when the elders go out of town.

Carolyn Casteel says right now, Hope Meadows is unique, but there is growing interest in replicating the model community elsewhere in the United States. She invites seniors and families who are interested in being a part of Hope Meadows to contact her via e-mail: