Leo Cakounes Interviews Sharon Palmer

On Spectrum, Cape Cod Public Affairs Programming

Leo Cakounes talks to Sharon Palmer, Co-Founder and Director, about how the Closet provides essential needs to foster families and guardians of children who find themselves in need of basic tools to raise a child. (Aired on 10/31/21).

Listen to the interview now. Scroll down for notes.

What is the Cape Cod Foster Closet?

Leo Cakounes: Right out of the gate. What is it?

Sharon Palmer: The Foster closet is a place where foster parents can go to get any kind of item that they need for their foster families.

So instead of keeping your basement or an extra room in our house stocked with everything a foster family might need, we do that for the families.

So quite often foster families will take in a wide range of children and it’s really hard to keep everything ready to go for whatever call you might get. So we have everything a foster parent could need for any age from newborn right through teenagers and we try to supply everything within a few hours to a day. They can call us anytime and we can get the items to them.

Why Did You Start the Foster Closet?

LC: Well, that’s interesting, Sharon, I introduced you as a co-founder. Do you want to let us know why you decided to start something like this a program of this nature?

SP: My husband Andy and I have been foster parents since 2017.

We work with the Department of Children and Families in Hyannis, and over the winter we were talking about how we could help support foster families in the area.

And we’d love to be able to help more than just one child at a time. We usually take infants and we usually have just one or two that we keep anywhere from a night to over a year.

So we were talking about how we could help families more and we came up with the idea of – I did a lot of research online – and we came up with this idea of a “foster closet.”

And we started an organization, a nonprofit called Nurturing Foster Families, Inc. And we got that 501c3 status this spring and the Cape Cod foster Closet is a program of that.

We have plans for other ways of supporting foster families as well in the future. But for right now we wanted to get the Foster Closet up and running, which we did in March of 2021. So we have lots more ideas in store to support the families because it is a tough job to raise someone else’s children and we just want to do whatever we can to help and we feel that because we are foster parents ourselves, we have a good idea of what’s needed.

The Foster Closet Mission Statement

LC: Is there an official mission statement for the organization?

SP: Yes. Our mission is to support families who care for other people’s children by providing basic necessities, helping hands and emotional support.

And when we were coming up with that we examined our value system and everything, and we kept coming back to the four values that are important to us community, compassion, respect and service. So those four things go into all of our decision making and everything that we’re doing for families.

Can Grandparents Get Help from the Foster Closet?

LC: What’s interesting, two things that jumped out at me. First of all, what a good name is Cape Cod Foster Closet. It implies that really only sort of people who signed up with the government, the old red tape, I guess you’d call it and being an official foster parent, but in your mission statement, you don’t use that word.

So if we were grandparents say and having trouble with our kids, next thing you know my grandchildren are now living with me. I’m really not set up to be a parent once again. But as my child I might be working through some issues of their own trying to get their life together. I decided as a grandparent to take over the parenting skills and day to day looking after my grandchildren. Am I eligible to come down and ask for help from you? Even though I’m not an official foster family

SP: Yes, definitely. And we were not aware of the need when we started this.

We called it the Foster Closet because we thought we were going to be serving just foster families but it quickly became apparent to us that there is a very large segment of the population on Cape Cod that are grandparents or other relatives caring for young children.

And so we serve foster adoptive kinship or relative caregivers. But we’re really trying to get the word out to the grandparents because a lot of times the grandparents take guardianship, whether it’s temporary or not, and they’re not going through an agency.

So we are working with other organizations to let them know about us and we have been getting quite a few calls and we’re getting more each week.

So I’d love the the opportunity to let people know that anyone who is caring for someone else’s child can call. There’s no referral needed, which sets us apart from some of the other organizations that serve children locally. You can just call or text me or reach me through our website and we will be glad to help.

LC: Yeah, interesting because you know, you mentioned that there’s this growing need and I can only imagine what the effects of the pandemic across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

You know, you have a son or daughter or family member living off Cape, they’ve gone through this, you know, horrific time of the pandemic. They may have lost a job. They may decide for the summer they’re going to send their kids down to live with grandma and grandpa. So it’s not really a full time situation, but it might just be a part time need situation.

And it sounds like your organization is out there because to help people like this because otherwise they’d have to go out and purchase a lot of this stuff that they they know they’re going to need for the time that did caring for the struggling and what to do with it afterwards?

What is Your Location?

LC: I understand now that you actually have a physical location too, because some of our listeners are probably thinking, “Okay, how does this work? How do I how do I how do I come down and get some things, I’m gonna be watching a infant for the next three months? How do I come down and get the things that I need for this infant?” The stroller, the safety gates and things like that. Talk about your location and how a listener might want to, if they decide they want to come down and check out to see what they might need from you that you may have.

SP: We are located at in Orleans at 195 route 6A. So very convenient to the exit off of Route 6.

But we only staff it two half days a week. So anybody who’s interested in or who needs items, should contact me either by phone or text or by submitting a form on our website and that comes directly to me and I respond usually within an hour or so.

We do accept donations. So everything that we carry or everything is donated to us and everything that we give out is given free of charge and there’s no expectation that we’ll ever get anything back.

The intention is if we give out items and the child moves either to another foster home or reunites with the parents or whatever the situation may be, those items are meant to go with that child.

Right now [November, 2021] we’ve kind of got a kind of a temporary hold on accepting items just because we the community is so generous and we are bursting at the seams.

We have two rooms set up like a store, and people… we’re happy to have them come and look through everything we have and get what they need. But we have found that what usually happens is we get a call either from a parent or the adult who’s caring for the children or the social worker and they let us know what the needs our sizes, shoe sizes, equipment that’s needed. We put it all together and they either make an appointment and stop by to pick it up or we do have drivers who will meet a family like halfway; we do get a lot of people from the Falmouth-Sandwich area. So we we do have people who are willing to take the items to them, to meet halfway.

Does the Foster Closet Only Carry Disposables? Do You Have Furniture, Too?

LC: What about a crib, I mean, or furniture, maybe a toddler bed? And the other big one too is which a lot of us older people forget but you got to have a car seat now when you’re taking care of a child to get just thrown in the back of the pickup like they used to. Do you have items like that that are available for people if they need it?

SP: Yes, we do. And we do accept gently used items as well as new. The cribs and the car seats, we check online to make sure that they haven’t expired or been recalled. If someone donates a car seat that has been used, we ask them to certify that it has not been in an accident and I check to make sure it hasn’t expired.

And we have two offsite storage units where we keep the bigger items like that; we do have toddler beds we have strollers, lots of bouncy seats and other items for for infants.

And one of the interesting parts of carrying all this furniture is when we’re working with social workers at DCF,

The Department of Children and Families, when a child is removed they try to place that child with a relative and we’ve had several instances where they have found a relative who was willing to take an infant but that person says, “I would take her but I don’t have anything… I don’t have a crib I don’t have a stroller or a car seat.” And the social worker calls me I assemble everything and within a couple of hours. we have filled the social workers car with everything that grandparent needs or that relative doesn’t have to be a grandparent to be able to keep that child kind of in the family not having them go to a foster home, you know, that is not known to them.

So that’s been really satisfying for us to be able to help in that way. And it’s it’s just seems to be working really well.

I do ask for pictures of cribs and and other items because we don’t give out anything that I wouldn’t use for our own kids.

Do You Need Volunteers?

LC: Sharon once again, we talked about a lot of things as far as the not only what your organization does for foster parents, and parents who’ve become the caretaker of children, whether they may be family members or whatever the condition may be.

And you did cover about some donations. You’ve covered that you do take physical donations, although you may be slowing down a little bit now and we made it very clear that the stuff has to be in excellent good usable condition. Obviously, you don’t have a staff of people to try to fix anything and not you want to get into that either.

But you must have some other needs too… you mentioned that the site itself, 195 Rte. 6A in Orleans is only open two days a week, Tuesday from nine to 11 and Wednesday from two to four.

Are you looking for more volunteers? Do you need any help on that end? If we have a listener that might be saying, “Hey, this might be something I want to get involved in.” Is that an opportunity for someone to come down and volunteer and help you out?

SP: Yes, I do have a list. I keep a list of volunteers who are willing to sort or organize clothing or to drive. either pick up or deliver items or help with special events.

So there is a form on our website for people who want to volunteer. They can submit their information and then we get in touch with them. Right now we’re not using a lot of people in the shop to sort and organize because we don’t have anywhere to put the clothes so there’s a lot in storage. So as soon as we can move some out, then we’ll be looking for people to help move.

Foster Closet Events

LC: So it sounds like you have a cool event on an annual basis which helps maybe bring up some of these school needs. And I think you had the event this year what back in August, but do you think that’s going to become a yearly event to you and your organization?

SP: I do, and it went over so well. And I think that we will be doing that every year.

So we had lots of new backpacks donated to us. So we decided to have an event where we gave away backpacks and the kids could choose their school supplies and then we also ran a drive to collect new sneakers, socks, underwear, and pajamas. Seems like I’m missing something but everything was new and the kids could choose. Choose their own sneakers.

And the children that came were so excited to be able to try things on and to start the year off right, like I just I feel like you know the beginning of school. It’s an exciting time and it should be exciting for everybody.

So our community was just so generous to donate all the new items and we also received donations from the several local businesses. The Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod, Rooter Ryan, the knack in Orleans, Montessori Beginnings Preschool, Cobies in Brewster, and Davenport Realty all contributed financially so that I was able to go out the night before the event and get the last few sizes that hadn’t gotten donated.

So everyone went home with everything that they needed, plus they were able to come into the shop and get whatever clothes they wanted to go back to school.

Winter Coats Available – and Needed

And then starting next weekend, we are doing the same thing for winter coats. We are having a winter coat giveaway with hats, mittens, probably some boots, and then each family gets like a 30 minute slot time to come in… have the place to themselves, pick up clothes for warm sweaters, whatever clothes they need for the winter. So that’s another another event that we’re having.

LC: On the winter coat. What are you looking for? I know you’re always looking for financial donations and the best thing to do, listeners out there, is you know don’t go down get out and buy a coat, maybe the wrong size, may not be what kids want today. I don’t know, if you really want to help out send a cash donation. But however some people may have some winter coats so that that their children have outgrown. Are you looking for… do you need more? Are you okay for this year or is it something that you might want to put a call out for?

SP: Yeah, we would like more if people have them because we will be giving coats out all winter long.

So we’re doing this now before the parents go out and buy them. We wanted to do it early enough so that they knew that they were in good shape for the winter, but we get between usually five and six calls a week for items for families.

So every time someone contacts us for clothes, we give out a new duffel bag or backpack that’s filled with usually a week’s worth of clothes, sneakers or in the winter we’ll do boots. And we’ll do a coat and whatever else we can tuck in there.

We usually try to put in some books and a small toy of some sort, you know age appropriate things for the kids.

So yes, we would take coats and we’ll just hold on to them.

Whatever is donated is used, if it’s not used on that exact date for that event because we have other sizes, or others of the same size we hold on to it and it’ll be given out throughout the winter.

Do You Give Out Electronic Devices?

LC: How about those kids that might be, you know, 8 to 12 I guess, I don’t know just to throw out a number out there, do you get into electronics? I mean, that’s the thing young kids today are they really, you know, hooked on these video games and things like that. Do you get into any of that kind of stuff as far as giving?

SP: We don’t. We try to stick to just the basics.

So we feel like we are providing enough items to get the parents through the first week or two until they can get settled and then know what the children need. But we feel like there’s other organizations that may provide gifts like that or the electronics.

You know, when we give out a bag… we don’t even accept large toys because we don’t have any idea of the space where the child is living. So we will tuck in a small car or doll or something but as far as fancy toys and electronics and all, we’re trying to do more just the basics and that’s goes for clothes also. You know we don’t accept the blue jeans that are all torn that are in style.

Will the Foster Closet Expand Services?

LC: It sounds like your organization started out with a great idea and you have really moved in a number of different directions to service a lot of people in those needs. Especially not only what I will call “licensed foster parents,” or parents that happen to be in the system, but for those of us that have become foster parents through just the way our families have turned out. Do you have any kind of looking forward to the future? Do you think your organization is going to expand, do you think you’re going to just stay status quo and fulfilling this need, or do you think this need might end up increasing? And then we talked a little bit about COVID, but what do you plan for the future?

SP: We have plans to offer more support to the families, with maybe a matching volunteer with a family who could work with that family to do whatever might be needed… coming in to the home and maybe playing or tutoring or helping with homework, you know, An afternoon a week or something. Maybe providing a meal occasionally, especially when a foster family or someone… when a child first arrives the first couple of weeks is… your life kind of gets turned upside down and just having somebody call and say can I drop off a meal to you this week? I mean that would just like be such a wonderful thing for the family and for the volunteer..

LC: A support system. It sounds like a good idea. It sounds like there probably be a need out there especially for once again for those people who haven’t been parents of young children in a long time yet find themselves in that position again, they would probably probably reach out and use that a lot.

I just want to take again with our listeners know that. If they want to find out more about the foster closet, please check out their website and Cape Cod Foster closet.org And once again, you can reach out to Sharon Palmer herself as she said she’d be more than happy to be available to answer any questions, certainly take any donations and seek any help as she moves forward.

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