By Leslie Berkman     4/13/2015

In late February Michelle Edwards was broke and scared. She and her three children spent several nights curled up in their minivan that was parked at a Wal-Mart in Santa Ana.

The family had just arrived in California from Arkansas, where they fled after Edwards’ husband abandoned them. Edwards’ hopes for assistance from relatives in Arkansas were dashed and she returned home to California having used up her savings on hotels along the way.

In desperation, Edwards called Safe Families for Children, a program put in practice by church volunteers in Southern California under the leadership of Olive Crest, a private Orange County child welfare organization.

Within a couple of days the Edwards children — 12- and 14-year-old girls and a 3-year-old boy — arrived at the Laguna Hills home of Angie and Ken Doll. The couple took in the children and gave them beds, meals, toys and affection, all the while staying in touch with their mother, who used the time to find transitional housing for her whole family.

“It was a blessing that Angie and her husband were willing to take my children in. My kids felt safe and I felt safe with them. I am pretty much having to start all over again and it is helpful to have people who care,” says the 40-year-old mother, who is now job-hunting.

Edwards and her children were among the earliest to benefit from St. Timothy Catholic Church becoming the first Catholic church in Southern California to partner with Safe Families for Children. The Dolls are part of the pioneering project.

In 2010, Olive Crest established a Southern California chapter of Safe Families, a national organization founded in Chicago. It has recruited about 300 host families from more than 80 Southern California Christian churches who have provided temporary shelter and Bible-inspired hospitality to nearly 2,000 children.

The program strives to keep families together in the belief that children raised with their natural parents and siblings, rather than in foster care, are less apt to fall in harm’s way.

“The families we work with are not abusing their kids but are good moms and dads going through very hard times,” says Danny Sells, a Safe Families for Children national director. Homelessness is the biggest reason why families need assistance and often stems from illness, drug addiction or joblessness. Sells says parents have a better chance to deal with these problems if they are temporarily freed from child care. Then they can be reunited with their children.

Typically, parents seeking temporary shelter for their children are single mothers without family or friends to lend a hand. “We aim to draw families out of isolation and into compassionate community,” Sells says.

Catholic churches in other parts of the country are involved in Safe Families, says Sells, who hopes St. Timothy’s example will draw more Catholic churches into the ministry in Orange County.

“We are supportive of the program and interested to follow how St. Timothy’s progress is going,” says Greg Walgenbach, director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange. “It is a great way to get parishioners involved in putting their faith into practice.”

Father Loc Tran, parochial vicar at St. Timothy’s, says a group of parishioners had been attempting to create a ministry to protect vulnerable children when they learned about Safe Families in March of 2013. After extensive research, which included answering questions about liability, they received approval from the church pastor, Monsignor John Urell, to join the Safe Families program.

All Safe Families volunteers must be fingerprinted and take online safe environment training provided by the Diocese of Orange. Olive Crest takes responsibility for vetting the host families and their homes to ensure the safety of the children.

Volunteers assist the host families, who may be employed full time, by delivering cooked meals, baby-sitting and driving children to and from school or to doctors’ appointments. Also, a family coach matches a parent in crisis with a broad array of community agencies with resources to bestow on struggling families such as housing, food, clothing and addiction recovery counseling.

Late last year Angie Doll, coordinator of the new ministry called Hope For Kids at St. Timothy’s, and her husband volunteered as the church’s first host family. Since then two more parish families have entered the host vetting process.

Olive Crest sends descriptions of families in crisis to the parish families who pick the children they will host. Their choice hinges on their available time and accommodations and whether they think they can relate with specific children and parents.

Angie Doll says the ministry enriches the lives of everyone involved. “You start out thinking you are giving but end up realizing you are getting so much back. So their need becomes your blessing,” she says.

When the Edwards children left to rejoin their mother, Doll says the older girl told her, “I will never forget you. You made such an impact on my life.”

St. Timothy’s Safe Families team is nurturing an ongoing friendship with the Edwards family. The family attended Lenten fish fries at the church, and some parishioners have offered to babysit so the mother can go on job interviews. “You are developing a church family for this person,” Doll says. “It is not about making them Catholic. It is about providing them Christian love.”