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Photo by Samantha Burgess / The Flourish Foster Care Closet now dedicated for children (as opposed to teens) is seen inside the State Farm office of Erin Crane at 2 Forrest Road in Fort Oglethorpe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a fair share of hardships, especially for those in the foster care system, who face a greater challenge than ever in finding adequate housing, says Aimee Larsen, CEO of a local nonprofit that serves foster families in the tri-state area.

"The biggest difference from 2019 into 2020 and 2021 is that there are a lot of 'COVID babies' who are brought into the foster care system," said Larsen, CEO of Flourish Foster Care Closet & Support Inc., which provides clothing and basic necessities to children in foster families.

"COVID babies" are children conceived during the pandemic, she explained, and there are a number of reasons for them winding up in foster care, including rises in teen pregnancy, job loss and drug abuse.

During the height of the pandemic, Flourish Foster Closet worked closely with the Northwest Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, she said. When DFCS received a call about a new child being introduced to a foster family, Flourish would do "doorstep drops" of clothing and necessities for the child.

As things have started to return to a sense of normalcy in 2021, Flourish is able to serve foster families in person again by providing community-donated clothes and necessities at its "closet" locations.

Flourish started in 2017. Larsen, having raised two foster children herself, knew of the needs that foster families face, especially those new to the system and caring for foster children. So she, along with her friend and current Flourish Vice President Alicia Hollomon, decided to start a small nonprofit that would provide clothing and basic necessities donated by the local community.

Flourish opened its first formal "closet" in 2019, inside the State Farm office of Erin Crane at 2 Forrest Road in Fort Oglethorpe. There, those in foster care could come in and "shop" for themselves.

In March 2021, they opened a new location at 364 Cleveland St. in Ringgold. That now serves as the teen closet, and the Fort Oglethorpe location is now focused on items for younger children.

Larsen said the original plan was to have both a child and teen closet all in one, but due to the increasing needs of teens in the foster care system, they decided to open a separate location.

"A lot of the teens feel guilty asking their foster families for new things," said Larsen, explaining that most teens in foster care have been in the system for a while, so their need isn't for emergency clothes or supplies but for a new wardrobe. "So when they come to our teen closet and we tell them they can have anything they want for free, their faces light up and they load up on clothes."

On average, Flourish serves 25-30 foster families per month in a 12-county tri-state area, Larsen said, with Northwest Georgia being the primary area they serve. The counties that received the most services so far this year are Catoosa, Walker, Whitfield and Hamilton, in that order, according to statistics on the nonprofit's website.

In the first quarter of 2021, Flourish was able to serve 103 families, 45% of whom were Northwest Georgia residents.

"That's our highest number in the first quarter to date," said Larsen.

Despite an influx of foster families, there are still children who need homes, she said. In order to help meet the need for more foster homes, Flourish also provides resources to show potential foster families the first steps they need to take, working with several local foster services to offer quarterly IMPACT classes to help train new foster families.

"Our No. 1 goal is to eventually be able to have more foster families than foster children," Larsen said.

Flourish's newest endeavor is a facility in Summerville, Georgia, called Esther Manor, which will help girls who have aged out of the foster system. Annually, 20,000 youth between the ages of 18-21 age out of the foster system — with 50% having no income within four years of aging out, according to DFCS.

The group home was founded by four nonprofits: Foodbank for Chattooga County, Jonathan's House Ministries, The Grace & Joy House and Flourish.

"We not only want to provide them with a place to stay, but also give them a sense of family and help them with things like job hunting and finances," Larsen said.

In addition to dormitories, the facility will also have a day care.

Esther Manor is currently still in the remodel and cleaning process, and Larsen said they are looking for volunteers who will help with this. Those interested in getting involved can visit Flourish's website to see how to volunteer and donate.

The biggest donation needs for Flourish's "closets" are infant clothing, diapers and beds, she added. To learn more, visit flourishcloset.com.

Contact Samantha Burgess at samrenee1998@yahoo.com.

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