Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.
When her step-grandson was placed in a children’s home in Richmond, Indiana, at 7 years old, Tracy Walters hired a lawyer and fought for him with no hesitation. She was given a kinship placement, when grandparents or other extended family members raise a child, and he lived with her for the next five years.
Tracy never became a licensed foster parent afterward, but she said her experience with him and the year she spent in foster care when she was 15 years old was never far from her heart.
During Indiana’s statewide stay-at-home order due to COVID-19 concerns in spring 2020, Tracy said like most people, she and her husband, Jeremiah Walters, started paying more attention to the world around them. After hearing heartbreaking stories about the foster care system and doing their own research, she said they knew God had a plan for them that was greater than binge-watching Netflix through the pandemic.
“I woke up one morning and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” Tracy said. “There’s a lot of kids out there that need safe, loving homes and slip through the cracks … they just need someone on their side.”
Turn Away No Longer, a faith-based, nonprofit organization providing resources and care to foster youth through many different programs, was created from the couple’s desire to help the kids their community was “failing,” Tracy said.
The first program Turn Away No Longer introduced was SwagPacks, backpacks given to foster children filled with various, age-specific necessities designed for emergency or immediate removal.
“God drives us in everything we do,” Tracy said. “We prayed about it, and we just felt that to reach the child with their immediate needs and make them feel loved, the SwagPack was the perfect way to start.”
Each SwagPack includes clothes, a hygiene pack, a blanket, a stuffed animal and an activity based on the child’s age — for example, a coloring book and crayons, a journal or a book. Recently, fidget and sensory toys were added.
Every SwagPack also comes with a handwritten card from various volunteers throughout the communities Turn Away No Longer serves, such as youth groups and Girl Scout troops.
“It’s just a word of encouragement to let the child know that they are loved and they’re not forgotten,” Tracy said.
Last year, 700 SwagPacks were distributed to the Department of Child Services of 26 Indiana counties through Benchmark Family Services, a network of professional foster homes providing staff and services throughout Indiana and Kentucky.
In August 2021, Turn Away No Longer furthered its outreach by introducing Katie’s Closet, a free foster closet in Madison County. Any licensed foster family is allowed to shop for the kids in their care, but appointments are required for privacy purposes. Tracy said from August to November 2021, 56 children were able to shop.
Turn Away No Longer’s fundraising focus for 2022 is the creation of the TANL House in Madison County for the Department of Child Services. The TANL House will serve as a safe and comfortable place for foster youth to stay while awaiting placement. It will be equipped with bedrooms, bathrooms, a living area, kitchen, dining room and a backyard while also including office space for social workers.
“When children are removed from their situation, oftentimes they’re taken back to the office,” Tracy said. “They have to sleep on the floors if it’s overnight before they can’t find placement. Statistics have shown that that is more traumatic for them than what they just got removed from.”
Everything Turn Away No Longer provides is through fundraising, volunteers and donations.
“None of us take a paycheck,” Tracy said. “One hundred percent of everything we bring in goes right back out to the children of our community.”
Among the organization’s volunteers are five board members, who act as advisors for Turn Away No Longer’s events and programs. They also speak to churches and potential sponsors on behalf of the organization.
Mike Johnson, board member and pastor at Greater Light Church in Anderson, Indiana, said the selflessness of Tracy and Jeremiah and their willingness to help people beyond foster youth is what makes the organization so special.
“With Tracy and Jeremiah, the criteria is, ‘You’re in a position where you need something; what can we do to help?’” Johnson said. “To me, it is absolutely the love of Christ on display, in probably the greatest way I’ve ever seen.”
Johnson allowed Tracy and Jeremiah to present Turn Away No Longer to his church, and the three have been connected ever since.
“It was one of those things where it was just the right fit,” he said. “We just kinda mesh, and I love everything that they do.”
Board member Becca Mattson believes in the effectiveness of Turn Away No Longer, especially as a former foster youth herself. She said she is specifically fond of the SwagPacks, which are given to kids on “what is likely one of the worst days of their lives,” Mattson said.
“To be able to provide them some comfort and something to call their own is incredibly powerful,” Mattson said.
Mattson has a deeper connection to Turn Away No Longer because she considers herself one of the few aged out foster youths who had a favorable outcome.
“To me, these aren’t just kids in foster care,” Mattson said. “These are also my friends and the people I lived with and the kids that looked up to me that I still love to this day. For me, the most rewarding part is just knowing that because I made it out, I can help them, even if it’s in a little way.”
For Tracy, seeing the smiles on the children’s faces is what makes all of the work and effort worth it.
“If anything else, I’m hoping that this changes how [the children] see things in life, that people really do care and that they matter to people,” Tracy said.
Contact Emily Hunter with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @emily_hunter_01.