Couple building Muskegon residence to support youth who age out of foster care

What happens when a child in foster care turns 18 years old? Where does he go? What resources is she given? Who can he ask questions about life?

Muskegon residents Katie and Jeff Steele realized that there were no good answers for those questions when they started fostering children.

“After having teens placed with us and watching them age out and struggle, it was very clear that these teens needed a place to call home, with support and encouragement, but also space to learn and grow,” Katie says.

So, the Steeles embarked on a journey to create First Place for youths who age out of foster care. They are raising money to build as many as 14 rental units next door to their home. The property is near the bus line, the highway, and walking distance from a college and a tech school, all with a support family right next door. The goal is to provide stable housing so the youths can pursue education and employment, setting them up for more success.  

"We called the program First Place because we want to provide that first place for kids they can plant and actually build something from there," Jeff explains. "The statistics say that in the U.S., one out of five kids who age out of foster care are immediately homeless, so that's a really big problem."

Building a stronger foster care system

The Steeles’ journey began when their first biological son was young and they were sitting in church. Jeff, who is the Watermark Church’s worship pastor, and Katie had discussed adoption for a while, but during that particular service their pastor was talking about adoption from Michigan's foster care system. 

“I don't remember the exact numbers, but there were X number of kids waiting for adoptive homes and there were Y number of churches in Michigan, and his comment was, ‘This shouldn't be that hard,’” Jeff says. “It left an impression on us, and it was something we came back to when the time was right.”

In early 2011, Jeff and Katie began the licensing process. They found out quickly that they weren’t very good at saying “no” to fostering kids. They now have 15 children, including seven adoptees and four currently in foster care.

“We didn't want kids sitting in shelters or waiting in limbo, or just to not have someplace safe to go. So we decided that we would offer whatever we could,” Jeff explains. “We noticed that we were connecting with a part of our community that we really hadn't noticed before – parents who were struggling, kids who were struggling, kids who had big emotions and big needs.”  

They also noticed that there didn't seem to be enough foster parents. 

“Over time we started to notice that the families who were carrying most of the foster care load were tired, worn out, and stretched thin, and we started looking for other ways to help,” says Jeff.

That led them to create the nonprofit Kids Belong in 2013 as an effort to help the community rally around foster care. 

The Steeles’ strategy is twofold: First, they support foster, adopt, and kinship families with clothing closets and help at holidays, birthdays, back to school, and other times. In addition, they are building a community of support among those who are doing this important work through events for families, support groups, and parent-to-parent connections both in-person and virtual. 

“The ministry has grown significantly in the last few years. Today we operate two foster closets and host 16 to 18 events each year that build community and support among foster and adoptive parents,” Jeff explains. “We host support groups, moms’ nights, and dads’ nights every month. In 2022 we organized donations of and distributed 300 Christmas stockings. This year we gave away more than 500 backpacks filled with school supplies for kids in foster, adopt, and kinship homes.”

The First Place for youths who age out of foster care

Katie and Jeff didn’t want to stop there, though. They wanted to create a physical living community for kids who aged out of the foster care system and had no place to go. 

“During COVID 2020 we had so much free time and space to sit and dream,” Katie says. “We started looking for property in Grand Haven to build our dream of more space for independent living inside our home. The plan changed several more times, landing us in Muskegon where we are now. It’s the ideal spot because it’s close to colleges, bus routes, and jobs. 

“It’s been a long time in the making, with lots of hoops and obstacles along the way, but each one has proven more clearly that this is where and what we’re supposed to be doing.”

“We had thought we would build a new house and make space for a couple of youths, maybe as many as four in our biggest initial version of the idea,” Jeff adds. “But here on this property we learned that we could actually build more dwelling units, as in additional apartments or houses. We eventually settled on a layout for the property that includes as many as seven duplexes that could hold 14 youths.”

The plan calls for a house for Katie, Jeff and their children under the age of 18, while duplexes will house 14 youths, each in their own one-bedroom, one-bath unit. Their home will serve a few other purposes, too.  

“It will be a meeting and office space for the nonprofit,” Jeff explains. “It can host some of the closet space that we need to serve foster/adopt families from all over West Michigan. We also hope it will be used by CPS and other child welfare agencies for a comfortable home environment where kids can spend their first few hours while waiting for a foster care placement. Long term, when Katie and I eventually retire, it can also be a home for someone to live in while they manage the program.”

Their goal is for youths who have aged out of foster care to live there for one to two years while they find jobs, go to school, build their credit, and learn how to budget and save to live well on their own. 

“Our goal is to create a safe place for former foster youth to help them transition from being under the care of the system to being self-sufficient and independent,” Jeff says. “All the research says that the longer former foster youth engage in services, the better their outcomes will be. We believe that we can help set youth on a path toward independence and stability sooner by taking care of this basic need for safe and stable housing. With housing secured, they can turn their attention to school or work, whatever their next steps need to be.”

To learn more about First Place and Kids Belong, including how to help or donate, visit their Facebook page or their website.
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Read more articles by Kelsey Sanders.