Three Gilbert women’s life-long commitment to helping foster children has put them on a mission to convert an old east Mesa church into Arizona’s first community center.
The lives of Anika Robinson, Susan Woodruff and Angela Teachout have revolved around children for years. In all, they have 26 children — some biological, some foster and others adopted kids.
Their commitment goes well beyond the walls of their homes.
After experiencing the challenges of raising abused and neglected children, they worked together in 2016 to get passage of a state law — dubbed Jacob’s Law in honor of one of Woodruff’s foster children — that now requires Arizona to provide foster children behavioral health services and other assistance at a much faster rate than in the past.
Now, Robinson, Woodruff and Teachout are undertaking another major challenge.
They are converting the church on University Drive near 80th Street — which once was a Masonic temple — into Jacob’s Mission Community Center.
It will be a sort of boys and girls club for foster children.
“This will be a first in the state. There isn’t anything like this at all,’’ Robinson said. “When teenagers don’t have someone along the way to help them, it’s hard.’’
The relentless trio created a new non-profit, ASA Now — which stands for Advocacy, Support and Assistance — to raise money for Jacob’s Mission and also to provide outreach services to the families of foster children at donated facilities in the East Valley.
Despite adamant opposition from neighbors, they worked with Phoenix zoning attorney Adam Baugh to convince the Mesa Board of Adjustment to grant a special use permit that allows the building to be used as a community center.
ASA Now also has secured a $1 million loan from an anonymous philanthropist that enabled them to purchase the three-acre property, which includes the 8,222-square-foot temple.
Robinson, ASA Now’s president, declined to identify their benefactor except to say, “It’s someone who has a heart for foster care and foster children.’’
The moms now face the daunting task of renovating the former church, which originally opened in 1992 as a Masonic Temple and then became the Church of God of Prophecy, which catered to a Hispanic congregation.
The plain-looking block church is painted white and has a simple white cross outside.
It sits on a secluded lot and is not readily visible from the busy road.
A classroom building is planned on an empty lot behind the church building, along with a basketball court, a splash pad and other recreational facilities.
Although ASA Now has raised about $100,000, the cost of bringing the building up to code will be much higher. ASA Now is seeking donations and hoping that donors with skills in the building trades will come to its assistance.
Robinson said the goal is to create a place where foster children feel at home — which would contribute to their sense of stability at a time in their life when their world is in turmoil.
Volunteers familiar with the problems often associated with foster children would provide tutoring, mentoring and instruction in recreational activities ranging from music to basketball.
Support groups for both foster children and foster parents also would be available, along with supervised daycare that allows parents to have some time for themselves once in a while.
“One way or another, we are responsible,’’ Robinson said. “That’s why it’s a community center. It’s going to take the entire community to help these children.’’
Because of their special needs, the children often “don’t fit in’’ and often are behind in school because they have been moved from one foster family to another, she said.
ASA Now plans to rely on the network of people they have met as foster parents to work with the children.
For example, a music teacher who also is a foster parent plans to volunteer her time.
Woodruff said the children haven’t lived with the same family long enough to participate in the activities that other children do — things like youth sports leagues, dance lessons, piano lessons and all the other learning experiences that help children develop.
“We want to wrap our arms around the entire family,’’ Robinson said.
She envisions the new community center as a place that will nurture the children, where they are understood, where they can go even if they end up with another family.
“We put our son on a basketball team. They kept on saying, what’s wrong with him, why isn’t he paying attention,’’ Robinson said.
Without intervention, foster children have a history of a grim future, often ending up in prison or abusing their own children in a never-ending cycle of violence, she said.
“We are focusing on prevention,’’ Robinson said.
She said it takes someone with experience dealing with foster children to understand them and reach these kids.
Robinson said it’s important to understand that foster children, like all of us, didn’t get to pick their parents. Many foster children were born to mothers who used alcohol or drugs during their pregnancies.
Through no fault of their own, the children have been left with deficits that they need to overcome, through fetal alcohol syndrome, ADHD and other issues. Some of these parents are still using drugs or in prison, leaving them incapable of being effective parents.
Other nonprofit agencies in the East Valley that are dedicated to helping foster children are excited about Jacob’s Mission.
“I think having a place for these kids to go, be safe and learn about resources is very important,’’ said Katie Pompay, executive director of Helen’s Hope Chest in central Mesa, which collects donated clothing, toys and books for foster children.
“I am very excited to see Jacob’s Mission coming to light,’’ she said. “The more systems for foster children, the better.’’
Although the Arizona Department of Child Safety has been reducing the number of foster children by placing more of them with relatives, there are still plenty who need help, Pompay said.
She said Mesa has always had a large number of foster children, although no specific figures were available from DCS.
Darren DaRonco, a DCS spokesman, said there were 14,558 foster children in Arizona as of June, compared with about 18,900 in March 2016.
DaRonco declined comment on the new community center for foster children but appeared to support its mission.
“While we have been successful in lowering the number of children in foster care, there is still a need for people willing to offer a loving home to a child in care and for the community to support children in foster care any way that they can,’’ DaRonco said.
Kim Vehon, CEO of Foster Arizona, said Jacob’s Mission will provide an opportunity for foster children to learn that they are not alone, that there are other children trying to overcome the disadvantages of a dysfunctional upbringing, and that the children likely will mentor each other.
“I think the community center will be a really good thing for the foster community,’’ Vehon said. “We’ve got people who understand trauma. We’re here to help raise them up.’’
First, ASA Now needs to raise the building up to the standards set by the Board of Adjustment. Robinson focused more on the building’s potential than its shortcomings during a tour.
“It’s the perfect set-up for it,’’ Robinson said.
For instance, the sanctuary has a sound system that was used for services. It can be used by the community center for music lessons or performances. It could be used as a makeshift theater for movie nights.
Other rooms in the church can be used for counseling sessions, or for ASA Now’s office.
But the church was built to bare-bones standards. Light fixtures are exposed and not located behind drywall. The floors need replacement. The kitchen has some working appliances but needs a major update.
“We need to bring it up to standard before we can bring children in here,’’ Robinson said.
Despite the long list of necessary improvements, Robinson, Woodruff and Teachout don’t seem worried in the slightest about accomplishing their goals.
At every stage of their campaign to help foster children, good-hearted people have come forward to help, they say. They are hopeful that the same thing will happen again.
Anyone willing to help in some manner or to donate is asked to go to asanow.org.
“I always believe, with the right people in place, anything is possible,’’ Teachout said.