Brennan Heldt and Brad Scott videotape Grant Me Hope child Renae at the John Ball Park Zoo in Grand Rapids. Courtesy Grant Me Hope
There are 600,000 kids in need of families across the United States.
These kids are part of the foster care system and are available for adoption, but for children 10 and older, the hope of finding a family dwindles with every added year.
Helen Zeerip wants to restore these children’s hope.
Zeerip, who is a foster parent, said back in September 2014 she was watching a foster care training video as part of keeping her foster care license up to date, and one child’s words broke her heart.
“A little boy who was 15 said, ‘My older siblings told me once I reached a certain age, I would be unadoptable,’ and then he paused before he said, ‘No one should steal your hope.’ That hit me so wrong,” Zeerip said. “He is right; nobody should steal your hope.”
Since that day, Zeerip has been committed to helping children 10 and older find families.
She partnered with Barbara Aalderink, CEO of Fusion Graphic Consultants, and Jeanette Hoyer, former executive director at Pathways, MI, on Grant Me Hope.
The organization produces video segments of older-aged foster children available for adoption, which are then aired weekly on different television news channels.
Zeerip said the idea came from an initiative that was being done in California to help foster kids find parents.
“California did an initiative where they started getting these kids on TV, and they had a high success rate of getting these kids adopted,” she said. “I thought why aren’t we doing that here in Michigan?”
WZZM 13 in West Michigan aired the first Grant Me Hope video in January 2015 thanks to Catherine Behrendt, who agreed to air the segments for free on her Take Five & Co. program.
Zeerip has landed a handful of additional TV stations since, including WXYZ in Detroit and WWMT, which covers Cadillac, Traverse City and Sault Ste. Marie.
She said after the first Detroit video aired, there were 19 calls from people interested in adopting the girl in the video, which Zeerip said was a “phenomenal” response.
“The TV stations air the videos for free, and they are integral partners to finding these kids homes,” she said.
Zeerip said Aalderink has gone all over the state shooting videos of kids. The shoots usually take an hour and include interviews with the child and their caseworker. The raw material is edited down to a two-minute clip that is aired on the area’s TV station and shared on YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and other online outlets.
Grant Me Hope also has partnered with Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE), which takes all of the phone calls after a child’s segment has aired and does the follow up work of connecting the caseworker with interested parents.
Zeerip expanded Grant Me Hope outside of Michigan to Ohio, where the first segment aired in Cincinnati in February 2016.
She is working to expand to more TV stations in Ohio this year and considering other states like Illinois and Wisconsin for further expansion opportunities.
“My goal is to take it national,” Zeerip said. “It’s a national problem, 600,000 kids.”
Zeerip also owns Teddy’s Transport in Holland and is using the trucking company to get the word out about Grant Me Hope, as well.
She began producing decals with information about foster care and Grant Me Hope for the back of the company’s trucks and has successfully recruited several other local trucking companies to place the stickers on their trucks.
“We have 697 decals on the back of these trailers with three different messages about these kids,” she said.
For its first two years, Grant Me Hope has operated entirely through volunteer time and donations. This year, Zeerip hopes the organization will be able to hire its first employee, who will be responsible for finding funding sources to support video production and education about foster care.
“We just got a grant from the Michigan Masonic Charitable Foundation for $50,000 to fund a development director, someone who can raise funds full time,” she said.
“It costs us about $800 to produce a video in Michigan, and in Ohio, its $900 to $925 due to travel costs, but we just hired a crew there.”
Zeerip said the goal of Grant Me Hope is threefold: provide education about foster care and adoption, recruit more foster families and increase adoption rates.
Zeerip said Michigan does not have enough foster families for the number of kids in the foster care system.
While Michigan may not have “orphanages” per say, Zeerip said kids who can’t be placed in foster care end up in institutions akin to orphanages, where they don’t get to participate in many normal childhood experiences they’d have in a loving home.
And once foster kids turn 18, Zeerip said 25 percent of them end up homeless and less than 2 percent receive any further education.
Grant Me Hope has a lot of work ahead of it, but so far, it’s seeing some success.
Erica Quealy, marketing specialist in the office of communications at the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services, said as a result of the nearly 90 video segments produced by Grant Me Hope that have ran on the three partner television stations in Michigan, MARE has received “hundreds of calls” from viewers who have seen the children’s stories.
According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, there were 200 children with a goal of adoption in Kent County as of September 2016 and 17 in Ottawa County.
Additionally, there are 357 children in foster care in Kent County age 10 or older and 59 in Ottawa County. Those numbers do not reflect the number of children available for adoption, however.
Zeerip and her husband became foster parents 16 years ago and have fostered a handful of kids since. They also have adopted a couple of the children they fostered, though Zeerip said originally that wasn’t in the plans.
She said she thinks one of the biggest barriers to adoption, especially of older children, is the misconception there is “something wrong with them.”
“People think they are juvenile delinquents,” she said. “They are not. Someone needs to take them in and love them and give them guidance.”