Hope Sparks in families down and out

In a sunny building, Edith Owen helps lead people through dark times. On the floor of her office, there are piles of utility receipts from residents down on their luck. Her filing cabinets are stuffed with the stories of families who are damaged, but not broken.

"I get calls from everywhere," Owen said. "We do what we can to keep these kids out of the welfare system."

Owen is the kinship care coordinator for Pierce County Relatives Raising Children Program (PCRRC). The mission of the program is to provide support, information, education and advocacy to strengthen relatives and non-relatives who have assumed care of children who are not their biological offspring. The idea for this service began in 1988, when Owen began witnessing a growing phenomenon.

"I noticed a lot of grandmas bringing kids in for their appointments," Owen said.

At the time, she was working as an outreach specialist for the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department's Division of Children's Mental Health. During her time working for the department, Owen said she was motivated to help people raising child relatives. In 1997, PCRRC was born and grew in a tiny corner of the department's offices. Several years later, the department needed to restructure, and funding to Owen's brainchild was at risk of being cut.

"I thought this program could go away, so I called the community together for help," she said.

With a little grit, determination and seed money from the Tacoma/Pierce County Health Department, PCRRC grew to become the Child and Family Guidance Center. In February this year, the organization changed its name to Hope Sparks.

The organization has sprouted many divisions, some include maternity support, eating disorders and couples counseling. But no matter what, the organization has always stayed loyal to a theme of giving back to "non-traditional" families struggling in Pierce County.

While Owen shares the anonymous stories of families she has helped, she looks down at her phone.

"Only two missed calls so far, that's pretty low," she jokes.  

In a job like this, people like Owen must constantly look forward and plan ahead. This fall, Hope Sparks will partner with Pacific Lutheran University School of Nursing to provide healthcare to grandparents who are raising children.

"These grandmas and grandpas are phenomenal and deserve this care," she said. "Through thick and thin, they will do what they can to keep kids in their families."

Owen explained that many of the children and teens she helps have experienced hardships like the death of a parent or family members who are incarcerated or addicted to drugs. There can be a sense of shame associated with being raised by a relative, and not by a parent, she explained. But, the children usually tell her what is wrong with their actions, not by their words. What is most important is taking the time and energy to really listen, Owen said. And finding families who need a sympathetic ear is a lot simpler than most people would think.

"There is this great underground system that leads people here," Owen said.

She scrolls down a file on her computer and recites the list of how people found the program.

"A librarian told me."

"My friend."

"My DSHS counselor."

"I heard about it at a food bank."

The network of support stretches far, but Owen said Pierce County in particular has an "incredible culture of utilizing resources well."

A framed picture above Owen's desk reads, "no one stands alone." In Owen's mind, learning can only begin when issues are brought to the forefront, when the blinders come off and people start talking about them.

"We have to find ways to support these people," Owen said. "Because like all of us, no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes."

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