Biological Siblings Remain Connected Through Love

Laura Barkalow and Jessie Fancher became fast friends after meeting while walking their kids to school. The Barkalows had recently moved into their Fort Walton home, and the ladies were thrilled to discover that they lived across the street from each other.

They had no idea just how deep their connection would grow. Fast forward six years, and the Barkalows and Fanchers are two families raising nine children who are all connected by love. “It’s been a really amazing experience,” Mrs. Fancher said.

“Our kids have a lot of people who love them.”

The story began when Laura and her husband, Rev. Dave Barkalow, the Senior Pastor at Fort Walton Beach First United Methodist Church, got licensed as foster parents through Embrace Florida Kids. They already had three biological children – Andy, Zadie and Rose – so the plan was to provide love and a temporary home for foster children who would eventually be reunited with their families. It didn’t take long, however, for them to fall in love with the first children placed in their care – Michael and his infant brother Xavier.

Laura and Dave Barkalow have adopted a sibling group of three children through foster care.

A year and a half later, the Barkalows learned that the boys’ birth mother was pregnant again, so they decided to foster that baby, as well. Saphira completed their family, and in April of 2018 they made it official and adopted all three children.

“Sometimes you start on a journey and you wind up someplace better than where you thought you were going,” Rev. Barkalow said.

“We didn’t even know we needed them,” his wife added, “but they were definitely meant to be in our family.” Meanwhile, Jessie and Eric Fancher, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, were busy with their young children, Ada and Eli. The two families traded babysitting, their kids played together, they shared family dinners, and they grew even closer.

The Fanchers had thought about fostering or adopting themselves and had met with the Embrace Florida Kids staff. They weren’t sure it was feasible, though, since they move around so much as a military family. When they were transferred to Germany, it seemed like the decision had been made.

Not long after the Fanchers moved, though, Mrs. Barkalow learned that her children’s birth mother was expecting again. Knowing that it was likely that this child would enter the foster care system as well, the young mother decided adoption would be the best option for her child.

“I called Jessie and she immediately said, ‘We’ll take him,’” Mrs. Barkalow said.

Mrs. Fancher flew in from Germany a few weeks before the birth mom’s due date and was in the delivery room when Owen, now 2, was born.

Although they are no longer neighbors since the Fanchers are currently stationed in Albuquerque, the two families are grateful that Michael, Xavier, Saphira and Owen will always be in each other’s lives. The families regularly connect through FaceTime, phone calls and photos, but the Fanchers hope to one day return to Florida or the Southeast.

Jessie and Eric Fancher are the adoptive parents of the baby brother to the Barkalow’s adopted sibling group.

“We want them to grow up knowing each other and knowing that their birth mom was doing the best she could for them,” Mrs. Fancher said. “It’s been really sweet for all nine children,” Mrs. Barkalow added. “Our older children were already best friends, but now we’re all family.”

Looking back, it’s been easy for the families to see God’s hand at work. Since military families and Methodist ministers move around a lot, the fact that the two families were neighbors is amazing in itself. “It wasn’t the military dictating where we lived, God made that choice to get us where we needed to be,” Mrs. Fancher said. “People are placed in your life for a reason, and we know what led us all to be at the same place at the same time.”

Florida Staff Overcomes Obstacles to Preserve Families

One of the main goals of Embrace Florida Kids is to equip vulnerable children and at-risk families to overcome adversity. That’s why, when a new team of workers with the agency’s family preservation program was faced with the challenges of COVID-19, they knew the only thing they could do was to practice what they preach.

Over the past few years, the demand for foster care and family preservation services in Northwest Florida has nearly doubled. As a result, the EFK staff has doubled as well, and a new unit was formed to handle cases in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties while a second team works with families in Okaloosa and Walton counties.

The newly created team had just started working together when the pandemic hit. Some were new to the agency while others were learning a new role. Suddenly, everything they prepared for was no longer feasible. “We had just gotten kind of comfortable when we had to revamp everything we had just learned.” said Joe Sims, Program Manager.

“We had to be creative and figure out how to do things together.”

The staff strives to help parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children gain the skills they need to provide a safe, loving, healthy home. The program, which has a 95 percent success rate, involves intensive in-home treatment. Since many of the parents didn’t have strong parental role models themselves, the EFK staff helps them develop parenting skills, discipline techniques and coping strategies. They also help families access supportive services, as well as counseling and medical care when necessary.

“We’re trying to keep the family intact,” Sims said, adding that taking children out of the home they know and away from parents they love can be traumatic for everyone involved.

“Instead of removing the kids from the family, let’s teach, let’s encourage, let’s motivate.”

Charlotte Thomas, Director of Programs for EFK, said that reunification is always the goal as long as the children can be safe. “Very seldom is there a situation where the family and children don’t want to be together,” she said. “If we can help them repair their situation, we may be planting a seed that germinates over future generations and prevents abuse and neglect.”

Since the program has traditionally involved face-to-face meetings, Sims and team members Antonio Elmore, Cordivido Grice, Shondra Jones and Charsy Anderson had to change gears once COVID hit. “Their resilience in adapting to changing needs and restrictions has been quite impressive, particularly in light of the short time that they have been team members and in their new roles as family intervention specialists,” Thomas said.

EFK’s new Family Preservation unit is staffed by (L to R) Cordivido Grice, Charsy Anderson, Joe Sims, Antonio Elmore, and Shondra Jones.

Establishing a rapport with the families is critical, so the team has connected with clients through videoconferencing technology and has provided cell phones or additional minutes when necessary. They’ve met clients in their yards while wearing face masks and standing six feet apart. They’ve also played online games with kids in order to make them feel more comfortable and more likely to open up about issues at home.

“We really grew together as a team because we had to help each other out and find new ways to help our families,” Sims said. “This is their race to run, but we’re the people on the sidelines handing out water and orange slices to help them get to the finish line.”

Ministry Finds New Name as it Embraces Kids Through Florida Programs

When UMCH began expanding its programs in Northwest Florida, “Embrace Florida Kids” seemed like the perfect name for the growing ministry. After all, the United Methodist Children’s Home has been wrapping its arms around children in need of homes, healing and hope in Alabama and Northwest Florida for nearly 130 years.

“The name and the logo are changing, but our focus remains the same, and our ministry will function the same,” said Kristin Alberda, Executive Director of Embrace Florida Kids. “In response to God’s Word, we’ll continue embracing and nurturing vulnerable children and families by providing homes, healing and hope.”

In Northwest Florida, that means providing foster homes, group homes, family preservation services, and support for the growing number of vulnerable children and families. “We work with hundreds of children and their families on any given day,” Alberda said. The kids we serve are victims of choices made by adults in their lives. Too often, they have endured unthinkable childhoods through no fault of their own.”

“While we would love to see fewer children needing to be placed in foster care, we know our services will continue to be needed next week, next month and next year,” says Charlotte Thomas,
Director of Programs for Embrace Florida Kids. “Knowing this, we really strive to build effective programs because some kids may not need us right now but they will certainly need us in the
future – we want to be ready to give them the best care and support possible,” Thomas adds.

Here’s a look at how Embrace Florida Kids provides homes, healing and hope:

  • EMBRACE FOSTER CARE. With an office in Pace, the Embrace Foster Care staff recruits, trains, licenses, supports and retains foster families to provide temporary homes for abused, neglected or abandoned children and youth. In 2018, the ministry provided 15,121 days of care to 116 kids in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. The average number of families is about 30, but this number is expected to grow to meet an ever-increasing demand.
  • EMBRACE MILTON GIRLS HOME. Embrace Milton Girls Home provides 24/7 care to girls ages 12-18, who have experienced significant trauma. Last year, 2,469 days of care were provided for a total of 18 girls.
  • EMBRACE FAMILY PRESERVATION. The Embrace Family Preservation program aims to keep families together by helping parents who have lost or are at risk of losing their children. The intensive in-home treatment provides them with the necessary skills to handle challenges in a healthy way and provide safe, loving homes. The agency works with up to 28 families at a time. The program has a 95 percent success rate with no recurrence of abuse. In 2018, UMCH served 389 individuals in 92 families.
  • EMBRACE TEEN CENTER. The center serves youth who have been impacted by the foster care system and their caregivers. Services include tutoring, study skills training, interview training and assistance with job applications and resumes. Students also participate in enrichment and social activities. Caregivers have access to a clothes closet, supply room and food pantry to help offset expenses. Last year, 29 teens were empowered at the center.

“Our programs are life-changing,” Alberda said. “There is nothing more rewarding than watching the children and youth in our care begin to heal. When kids have a loving home, regular meals, structure, and a safe place to rest, they begin to blossom. The transformation is not overnight but it’s a joy to watch it unfold.”