Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Vicki Houska, who has fostered 12 children, including Brandon (l.) and Michael, started a food pantry to help other foster parents.

Vicki Houska raised 12 foster kids. Now she helps other families do it.

She lined her St. Louis-area basement with freezers and shelves and began distributing food, diapers, and toiletries free to local foster families.

Vicki Houska is a woman of many gifts. But one of the first things that her friends and colleagues will tell you about her is that she is a hugger.

“No one leaves her without a hug and a smile,” says Michelle Barron, a work crew supervisor for the St. Charles County Juvenile Justice Center. “She might not even remember who you are, but there’s one thing for sure – she’s going to hug you.”

On this busy Saturday, though, Ms. Houska is getting ready to dispense more than just hugs. She’s moving briskly through the jampacked rented rooms that house the operation she runs for FAST (Foster Adoption Support Team), a support organization for foster and foster adoptive families caring for children who are wards of the state of Missouri.

Houska’s making sure that packages of frozen pork chops, fresh loaves of bread, and tiny snowsuits are all properly shelved and stacked, ready for the families who are about to arrive and lay claim to them.

“You’ll see them soon,” Houska says. “They start lining up at about noon.”

“They” are foster parents living and working in St. Charles County in Missouri. But for Houska these caregivers are much more than that. “They’re my family,” she says, flashing one of her trademark smiles.

Certainly, few people are more deeply plugged into the local foster family network than is Houska. A foster parent herself since 1998, she has fostered 12 children over the years and, of those 12, adopted three. “It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do,” she says of foster parenting. The emotional challenges “will bring you to your knees.”

But one thing that doesn’t have to be so hard on foster parents, she decided some years ago, is the financial burden.

Foster parents are paid a monthly stipend to take in a child in need of a home. In most states the stipend is slender, but Missouri ranks among the lowest in the country. (A base figure for a family taking in a single foster child would be about $230 per month.)

That’s not much, particularly considering the fact that many foster children arrive with no more than the clothes on their backs. (Sometimes the children are allowed to fill a plastic garbage bag with possessions before they leave their homes, Houska says, but in other cases they walk out the door carrying nothing.) Foster families are expected to provide food, clothing, and household items like toothbrushes and hairbrushes, and to cover school expenses and any additional treats, lessons, or outings.

From her own experiences and those of other foster families she has met, Houska came to feel that financial challenges were one of the biggest obstacles to the foster-parenting experience. So in 2005, to help alleviate the strain, she lined her own basement with industrial freezers and shelving, sought out donations, and began distributing food, diapers, and toiletries each Saturday, free to all local foster families.

Eventually the operation moved from Houska’s basement to her garage.

There, it thrived for five years. Local businesses and individuals made donations, and as many as 30 to 40 foster families and their cars pulled into her quiet cul-de-sac each Saturday (“I have the most tolerant neighbors in the world,” Houska says), eager for the donated food, which went a long way toward stretching their budgets.

Eventually, the OASIS Food Pantry, a local nonprofit, notified Houska that it had rental space available near its own operation in a nearby strip mall. Houska moved her pantry there in 2010 and – with the added space – was able to expand and offer donated children’s clothing as well.

Today the operation runs efficiently under the direction of Houska, along with other nonprofits that have pitched in to help and a network of volunteers. Local branches of Whole Foods, Starbucks, Panera, and other corporate giants donate food weekly. Clothing is donated by local families, including foster families who can recycle some items.

Designated drivers – often foster parents – pick up the food donations (often available only at a late hour when restaurants and grocery stores close). Milk and rent are funded by community and local grants; the rest is the result of volunteer power. “It is truly a grass-roots organization,” Houska says.

Among the volunteers are teenage siblings Alex and Peter Otto, students and community members who help out at the pantry regularly. “It feels great being here,” they say. “You see people smile.”

But it’s more than just the free food and clothing that keeps foster parents smiling.

Houska’s pantry offers not only household items but emotional and social support.

“This is where they meet,” says Ms. Barron of the foster parents filling up shopping bags. Local foster families have a chance “to meet each other, to exchange information.”

Foster families arrange play dates, with pickups and drop-offs scheduled at the food pantry. Sometimes, for siblings who have been assigned to separate families, a trip to the food pantry is a chance to reunite in the pantry’s backyard, where the children are invited to romp on the playground equipment donated by a local church and other well-wishers.

(Volunteers from the local fire department built the fence around the yard and Boy Scouts did the mulching.)

Chris Grissom, who has fostered 19 foster children and adopted three of them, says it warms her heart to be in the company of so many other foster parents. “These are people who’ve walked in your shoes.”

“It’s a big family,” she says.

Barron agrees. Houska, she says, is “everyone’s mom.”

Houska has been “everyone’s mom” for most of her life. She was 21 when her father was killed in a car accident. Her mother was emotionally unstable and not living with the family at the time. So Houska became the legal guardian of her three younger siblings.

It was a challenge to take on a family at such a young age, and in some ways the experience shaped the rest of Houska’s life. She and her husband had three children of their own, but she was left feeling that there was more that she could – and should – be doing. That’s what turned her to foster parenting.

Also, she says, she had a concern that her biological children might have it a bit too easy. “There were so many things they took for granted,” she says. Living with foster (and later adopted) siblings who had had a tougher road to travel would teach them much, she hoped.

When it comes to unselfishness, Houska sets a pretty strong example. In the years that her food pantry has been up and running, she has never been known to take a Saturday off.

“Sometimes we send her away,” Barron says. “But there’s never been a weekend that she did not show up.”

In addition to her volunteer work, Houska also holds down a paid job as a private events manager for a seafood specialty restaurant.

But she somehow manages to fit it all in.

“Poverty doesn’t take a vacation,” she says. “Kids in need don’t take a vacation. So neither do I.”

What motivates her, at least in part, Houska says, is the feeling of injustice.

“These kids are in a terrible situation not of their own creating,” she says. “They didn’t mess up. It was the adults around them who messed up.”

Now these children find themselves in the care of other adults – adults who may point them toward a better life. Houska’s mission, she says, is to do everything possible to help those adults succeed.

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