Tracy Rubstello, director of development for the Bridge Receiving Center (background), talks about the home being created as a 30-day refuge for children who are first entering foster care. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Tracy Rubstello, director of development for the Bridge Receiving Center (background), talks about the home being created as a 30-day refuge for children who are first entering foster care. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Soft-landing place planned for children entering foster care

The Bridge Receiving Center is remodeling a house on Cedar Springs Camp property near Lake Stevens.

Drivers zipping past a house being remodeled along Highway 92 near Lake Stevens don’t see what it really is. Founders of a nonprofit called Bridge Receiving Center are creating a new kind of first stop for children entering foster care.

“We train social workers. We train foster parents. We train everybody in this process except the kids,” said Kathleen Hamer, co-founder of the Bridge Receiving Center.

About three years ago, she and her husband Dan Hamer, senior associate pastor of Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, decided to try to improve what they see as a system that doesn’t work for many kids.

“They’re taken out of a traumatic situation, and it’s ‘Good luck, here’s your new family,’” Kathleen Hamer said.

The Woodinville couple came to Washington a decade ago from Southern California. There, they were part of Orange County’s Saddleback Church, and were involved in family camps.

Putting two ideas together — the camp experience and help for kids who’ve been removed from their homes — they started Bridge Receiving Center. Their nonprofit is partnering with churches, the state and Olive Crest, a nonprofit foster-care and adoption agency.

By early next year, they expect to open the center to six foster children, ages 6 to 10, for stays of up to 30 days. The house is planned as a soft-landing place for children who will be going to foster families.

With a 30-day stay, the hope is that there’s time for a child to be placed in the most appropriate home, possibly with a family member rather than strangers.

“This is an entirely new concept in foster care, and we are so excited about it,” said Tracy Rubstello, Bridge Receiving Center’s director of development.

They’re starting small with the Lochsloy-area home, but have a big vision.

Bridge Receiving Center leases the three-bedroom house from Cedar Springs Camp, which is just down the road. The camp, a nonprofit with ties to Bothell’s Cedar Park Church, owns 150 acres where the house is in addition to its own 150-acre site, Rubstello said. The properties are connected, and plans call for foster children to be able to sometimes use the camp’s facilities.

The idea is to start children in foster care in a camp-like setting. “Why can’t we take kids to camp?” Kathleen Hamer said.

There are hundreds of children to be helped. Debra Johnson, communication director for the state’s Department of Children,Youth, and Families, said that as of Friday there were 5,079 foster homes licensed in Washington, including 480 in Snohomish County.

Kathleen Hamer, who has a master’s degree in marriage, family and child counseling, said that in King County alone, about 45 children enter foster care each month.

The Bridge Receiving Center’s first residents, six boys, will be part of its pilot program. Eventually, the nonprofit intends to serve boys and girls ages 6 to 17. And the nonprofit envisions as many as 50 kids in multiple houses on the 150-acre property someday.

The Hamers and Rubstello have all been involved in organizations that help children and families in Africa. The Hamers adopted two boys from Kenya. One of them was alone on the street at age 4. Rubstello was part of a nonprofit that served women in Rwanda.

It was an experience, Kathleen Hamer said, that sparked their desire to help foster children. The Hamers had volunteered with an agency in Seattle that helped homeless young people. Some kids came to their home for Thanksgiving one year.

Hamer said she heard them comparing how many foster placements they’d had. For one girl, it was 20 homes; another had been in 30. Hamer said she was stunned to hear a boy say he’d been in 50 foster homes.

She talked to her husband about finding a way to make a difference.

They aren’t doing it alone. Jeff Judy, executive director of Olive Crest in the Northwest, is serving on Bridge Receiving Center’s board. Olive Crest, which has a contract with the state, will be the new nonprofit’s licensing agency, Kathleen Hamer said.

She has been in touch with Connie Lambert-Eckel, the state’s assistant secretary of child welfare field operations, and also with Everett-based Hand in Hand, which provides 72-hour stays for children coming into foster care through its Safe Place program.

Placements will come through the state, she said. There will always be at least two staff people at the house, she said, and a program manager will have a master’s degree in social work. “Everyone will be trained in trauma-informed care,” she said. “These kids have experienced trauma — any child in foster care has experienced trauma, or they wouldn’t be there.”

On Thursday, Aaron Tally, the nonprofit’s building project manager, was working on the house with 16-year-old Leo Fischer, a volunteer. They were digging in an area that soon will be a new therapeutic playroom, Rubstello said.

Children who’ll use that playroom “need to have a place to land, to help them grieve before we send them on to the next step,” Rubstello said.

And what if those kids want to stay?

That’s something Kathleen Hamer said they’re working on with therapists. The goal, she said, is for kids to feel safe and connected — and for their time at the center to seem like a stay at camp.

“We want it to be fun, something positive that they take with them,” she said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

The Bridge Receiving Center is a nonprofit creating a site near Lake Stevens to provide a place for children first entering foster care to stay for up to 30 days. Information: http://bridgereceivingcenter.org/

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