On any given day, about 160 children in Oklahoma’s foster care system are waiting for placement. Of these, many fall into a behavioral category making it unlikely they will ever be adopted or find a permanent foster home. These children are shuffled from place to place, sometimes making 15 moves in a year. Once they reach age 18, they graduate from the system, but their prospects are not bright: three out of 10 of the nation’s homeless have been in foster care.
These statistics, coupled with the reality of knowing those children will never have a place to call home, touched Trent Ward deeply.
“If you can imagine carrying all your belongings around in a plastic bag from place to place, never knowing where you are going to wake up … there’s no way you can ever feel comfortable,” Ward said. He knew that a sense of permanency could literally change those lives forever.
As the son of Tom Ward, co-founder of Chesapeake Energy, he grew up in a stable, privileged home. But he has found his calling serving the needs of others, particularly children.
“I believe I am supposed to take care of kids,” he said.
After six years of research and planning, Ward’s dream is becoming reality. With the help of his family and other donors, he has co-founded a permanent residence for boys in northwest Edmond.
When the facility opens in October, White Fields will provide a sanctuary for boys who fall into the Department of Human Service behavior category of D+. Many have been abused and neglected and are so traumatized they are unable to adapt to the traditional foster care system.
Ward’s goal is to “create as much of a home for these boys as possible” while also “providing the proper treatment and things that will help them heal from their wounds.”
Executive Director Mary Jones, a licensed professional counselor, said the boys will have 24-hour care and counseling.
In those aspects, White Fields is like other group home facilities, but that is where the similarities end.
The cottages will each be home to 10 boys, and each child has his own roomy bedroom with attached bathroom and shower. A large living area is flanked by five bedrooms on either side. Areas for therapy, recreation and a tornado shelter are also included in the cottage. But you won’t find a “control area” like many group facilities have: a central desk, similar to the nurses’ station in a hospital, so the staff can watch the residents, Jones said. Instead, the White Fields cottages are completely open in the center, providing a direct line of sight throughout the common areas.
The cottages are more reminiscent of a resort than an orphanage — and that’s exactly what Ward had in mind.
“We feel like we are creating such a special place that it will help them recover,” he said. The “dress for success” theory was also employed during the design of the cottages: “the nicer it is, the better you feel about yourself,” he said.
It is expected that when the boys feel stable and comfortable, they will progress through the DHS categories and move from the D+ classification to C. At most facilities, making that behavioral improvement would also mean moving to another group home, causing more stress and anxiety. But not at White Fields.
Through an agreement with the state, children will remain in White Fields’ “continuum of care” until they become self-sufficient adults. This permanency model is a completely new approach to foster care.
“We haven’t found any place in the country that has a permanency model like we’re planning,” Ward said.
Such a model would be cost-prohibitive for most organizations. But with the help of donors, White Fields intends to place a higher value on the children in its care than on the bottom line. The facility will be reimbursed $90.94 a day for each child, but with care staff, therapists, administration, educators, nutritionists and psychologists, not to mention food, clothing and utilities, it is easy to see how actual costs will quickly exceed that reimbursement.
Above all, Ward hopes to give the keys of success to the boys who will call White Fields home. He is already planning years ahead when the 10- and 12-year-old boys of today will be graduating. An aftercare program will provide mentors and skills training to help the boys transition to a meaningful life beyond the campus of White Fields.
“Each child is special and has unique gifts to offer the world and it is our goal to help them realize that,” he said.