Foster and adoptive families reconnect by unplugging and enjoying a weekend of respite at Sunset Hill, a unique Sunnybrook Cares program.
A New Vision for Sunset Hill
Foster parents have a difficult, but necessary job. They provide a home for children and youth that need it most. Unfortunately, a recent study shows that the average length of service in foster parenting ranges from 8 to 14 months, and over half of foster families quit within the first year. One organization aims to alleviate this problem with a novel program: Sunnybrook Cares.
Sunnybrook Cares operates a countryside hospitality home, which offers foster families a much needed weekend of rest and rejuvenation. The driving force behind this unique program is the Carters, a hospitality minded couple who have devoted themselves to providing foster parents the care and attention they need in order to keep on going. This compassionate couple consists of Shea and Philip Carter, who together give foster parents an unforgettable experience. Each brings a unique skillset to the table that makes it possible for any guest to feel at home.
Shea uses her years of hospitality education and experience to put new arrivals at ease within moments. Philip’s keen attention to detail helps guests feel at home for the weekend. He also knows his way around the grill, making dinnertime the highlight of any stay. Merge these skills with the couple’s combined years of foster care experience and guests leave feeling well fed, taken care of, and heard in a meaningful way.
The Carters are no strangers to foster care. Shortly after celebrating their second wedding anniversary, they opened their home to a sibling set of three. As they poured love and stability into these children over the next three months, they also obtained their foster parents license for the state of Mississippi.
“Because we had been involved with the foster ministry at our church, we were well equipped to care for these children,” Shea said.
When the children reunited with their parents, the Carters knew they needed to continue their journey fostering children in need of a loving home. Over the next year, they frequently cared for a child with the long term goal of adoption, but after nearly a year, things didn’t go as planned, and they experienced the heartbrokenness and grief that many other foster families know.
Their next step was to reevaluate their direct involvement with foster care children. They decided to change their ministry direction by offering date nights and home-cooked meals to foster families at their church. As it turned out, this new ministry path was the stepping stone to their next adventure.
Around the same time Sunnybrook was in the process of creating a new program offering support and encouragement to foster and adoptive families which would be called Sunnybrook Cares. Sunnybrook Cares would incorporate a respite home where families could arrive on Friday and leave rejuvenated and refreshed by Sunday. Since the Carters had been directed to their new path for a few months prior, Sunnybrook felt the Carters were a natural fit for the program.
In July 2017, the Carters embarked on a new mission when Shea accepted the position of Sunnybrook Cares Coordinator. Shea and Philip left their Jackson home and moved into the historic home on 75 acres of land affectionately called Sunset Hill.
“We love the city of Jackson, and our church’s ministry was in the city. So, the idea of moving 30 minutes away out in the country was a bit unsettling,” Shea admitted. “We didn’t think it would change the trajectory of how our lives would evolve, but it did.”
Their first major project was a home renovation overhaul. With a background in construction management, Philip knew exactly how to freshen up the house in no time. It should come as no surprise: the kitchen is the focal point of the house, with warmth emanating out into the rest of the home. They both agreed that the bones of the house were amazing and would work well for hosting families. The goal was to make the large home comfortable and relaxing. By December 2017, a majority of the home repairs and furnishings were complete. The Carters officially launched the program and hosted their first foster family. Since then, hundreds of families have sought rest and rejuvenation at Sunset Hill.
Unique Ministry in Motion
When considering all that a foster family experiences each day, the need for relief is essential - but hard to find.
“Becoming a foster parent is a difficult decision in the first place,” Shea explained. “There are all types of daily experiences people don't generally anticipate, including the trauma the child has endured before they ever enter your home. A lot of times that begins during pregnancy.”
“Even after a child enters your home, foster parents must maintain strict guidelines including back and forth visits to medical appointments, supervised parental visitation, court proceedings, etc. It can be exhausting on the parents and on their marriage.”
“From the very beginning, our goal at Sunnybrook Cares has been to provide respite for the parents so that they may be encouraged to continue doing the hard work set out before them.”
The Carters do whatever they can to ensure a family’s stay is relaxing and memorable.
Each family comes with their own preferences and needs, but the Carters have the creativity, flexibility, and knowhow to provide exactly what each family needs.
“Every family has their own things they enjoy doing,” Carter said. “We have those outdoor families, and then we have those readers or those that love TV. We had a couple come out last year and they set up in the front yard painting the entire weekend, it was quite picturesque!”
“When couples arrive, they've scrambled to get here, often exhausted. We try to start off with a really good meal; that's one of the ways we are able to connect with them. Our goal is to help them relax and unwind with a sounding ear and questions about their lives. By the time they leave, generally on Sunday around noon, they are rejuvenated, ready to get back.”
She added: “It's a reward for us to see that because the foster care community needs foster parents. We need parents who love these kids who have come from hard places and want to invest in them, providing love, support, and a healthy home life.”
As the Sunnybrook Cares Coordinator, Shea wears multiple hats to achieve the many goals of Sunnybrook Cares.
“My role is not just providing meals or managing Sunset Hill, it's connecting with the families, following up and offering various resources, be it counseling, support with meals, bedding, or clothing, etc.” she said. “The follow-up is a huge element of what we do.”
“Foster families have a variety of resources that they may not know about and we're able to connect them with not just those resources, but also with other families that are in similar circumstances. There are many nonprofits walking alongside us that also help foster families and we educate our foster parents on these resources.”
Shea is also responsible for reaching out to foster parent referrals and personally invites them to a weekend stay at Sunset Hill.
Ironically, parents aren’t always receptive to the idea, as Kim Jordan can attest. When she first received the call inviting her family to the property, she wasn’t sure what to make of the opportunity. After a few more conversations from foster friends that had utilized the getaway and some good conversations with Shea, the Jordans decided it was worth the trek from the Gulf Coast to experience the weekend getaway.
In fact, that trip encouraged them to continue fostering at a time they were ready to give up and walk away.
Sunnybrook Cares Still Adapting to Meet the Need
Every family brings its own set of circumstances and custom requests, showcasing the growing need and endless possibilities for Sunnybrook Cares.
After only six years in operation, the program has welcomed hundreds of families into the Sunnybrook community, offering much needed relief to adoptive and foster families alike.
“The Sunnybrook Cares program encourages foster parents to continue doing what they do best,” Jordan said of her experience with the program. “If there were more people like the Carters, who understood and met the needs of foster parents, fewer people would walk away from it.”
At a time when foster family retention is at an all time low, Sunnybrook Cares offers hope for the future of foster care.
Wherever the program spreads from here, you can guarantee that it will include beautiful memories, delicious food, and the inspiration to keep working for the benefit of our foster kids.
If you are a foster parent in need of a weekend getaway, reach out to Shea Carter and the Sunnybrook Cares program.
Check back for more on Sunset Hill and respite care at Sunnybrook as we continue to tell the stories of all of our staff who have helped bring the vision for Sunnybrook Cares to life.