Children entering the foster-care system in Hamilton County will soon have a place of greater refuge as they await placement in a foster home.
In June, officials with the Chambliss Center for Children broke ground for an Isaiah 117 House, a network of transitional shelters meant to bridge the gap between the parental home from which at-risk children are taken and the foster home that awaits them.
Not simply a homey, temporary shelter, Chambliss Center's Isaiah 117 House will be a place where children are "lavishly loved," says Rachel Froug Carroll, Chambliss' communications coordinator.
"If they need a bath or shower, if they need food, if they need alone time or want to make cookies or play a game, this house is there to show them they're not alone, that they're supported and it's not their fault," she says.
While most area residents may never see the inside of the house, Froug Carroll says she is confident that the model will have "a lasting impact years down the road" for at-risk children in the Chattanooga area.
Here are five things to know about the new facility, which is set for completion in early 2023.
1. The shelter's name is inspired by a Bible verse. A portion of Isaiah 1:17 is a challenge to "defend the cause of the fatherless." In an online history, founder and director Ronda Paulson says she believes "that is what God is calling me to do" with Isaiah 117 Houses. Her vision was "a home with a girl's bedroom, a boy's bedroom, fully stocked bathroom, playroom, nursery, etc." staffed with volunteers on call to greet "'the least of these' when they need love most."
2. Isaiah 117 Houses are based in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Since the opening of the flagship home in 2018, the network has expanded to five more states (Indiana, Florida, Virginia, Texas and Georgia).
The six existing homes in Tennessee also include the Bradley-Polk County facility, which opened in Cleveland on Oct. 17, 2021. Another 13 homes are either under construction or "raising awareness" for future construction, including facilities being built to serve Coffee-Franklin-Grundy and Monroe-McMinn counties.
Altogether, 26 counties in Tennessee would be covered by the Isaiah 117 network. Georgia's home would be in Union County (Blairsville).
Froug Carroll says feedback from Bradley-Polk case managers has been positive. "They're so thankful this program exists," she says. "They say it's changing the way we do foster care."
Isaiah 117 House at Chambliss Center
3. The houses work hand-in-hand with other child-welfare agencies. Caseworkers with the Tennessee Department of Children's Services and its Child Protective Services division, which investigates reports of abuse or neglect, are the frontline of defense for at-risk children.
"This partnership [between agencies] will only get stronger as we're there for caseworkers too," says Froug Carroll. "Removal day is horribly traumatic for children, but it's stressful for the case manager as well. This will be a safe space for DCS workers to come in and do their job."
4. Isaiah 117 Houses are designed to ease anxiety. In keeping with Paulson's original vision, the homes have an open, inviting floor plan, along with smaller touches, such as fluffy pillows, soft blankets and toys, that telegraph warmth and welcome. Froug Carroll describes it as a "trauma-informed design" meant to put apprehensive children at ease. "They can see what's in front of them as soon as they open the door," she says.
Further within the house are bedrooms (separated by gender), bathrooms, laundry rooms and offices for caseworkers. Upstairs is "a giant room for storage," Froug Carroll says. The Hamilton County home also will have a separate visitation area where children living with a foster family may spend time with their parents. A playground will await children outside.
Currently, entry into the foster-care system typically takes place at a caseworker's cubicle inside a DCS office.
5. The homes also better meet the needs of foster families. That "giant room" upstairs will be filled with everything from car seats to toothbrushes to school backpacks, Froug Carroll says.
Liz Blasbery, executive director of residential services at Chambliss Center, says access to such deep resources also helps ease the anxiety of foster families, who may be called in at odd hours with little notice of the child's immediate needs. Having necessities on standby keeps foster parents from "scrambling to get supplies."
"Do you need diapers? Do you need formula? Do you need extra outfits or pajamas? Do you need a portable crib? We want to do whatever we can to make that transition easier," says Blasbery.
"It's really hard to get foster families," Froug Carroll adds. "So whether we're calling them at 3 in the morning or 1 in the afternoon, they'll know that the children who've been at Isaiah 117 House will have new clothes, they will have a shower and lice treatment, and they will be ready to go. We want to make it easy for foster parents to have what they need to support children they are taking in," she says.
CELEBRATING 150 YEARS
Chambliss Center for Children is built on long-standing tradition.
Last year, Phil Acord, president and CEO, celebrated a half-century with the organization. On Nov. 11, he retired - 50 years to the day after he began working for Chambliss.
As his replacement, the board named 16-year employee Katie Harbison, who hit the ground running in 2022 - a monumental year for the center, marking its 150th anniversary.
To celebrate, several special programs and events are being planned this fall.
For example, Chambliss is currently seeking story submissions from the community - happy memories or significant experiences that relate to the center - to highlight in its newsletter, on social media or at its upcoming community fall festival, the official "anniversa-party."
The festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 23 at the center, 315 Gillespie Road. It will be free to the public and feature tours of the 17-acre campus, kids activities and more. Other VIP events are also in the works, including an official launch party for the Isaiah 117 House.
Get all the event details at chamblisscenter.org.