In a year where experts predicted the pandemic would force one-third of nonprofits to close their doors, Buckner International found a way to continue serving the Rio Grande Valley area.
The Dallas-based non-profit, which has a location in Peñitas and a foster home in Mission, was able to successfully transition to online services to continue providing aid to foster children and families throughout the year, according to Buckner in the RGV Executive Director Monica Salinas.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Buckner was able to virtually conduct nine virtual adoptions and seven virtual foster care certifications of families. 1,649 virtual services for the Family and Youth Services program were also conducted this year as Buckner International also provided more than 300 tons of pandemic relief aid, such as food and PPE, domestically and in the six countries it serves across the world.
“It’s still a struggle, but by the grace of God we’re still here,” Salinas said. “We did suffer but we are blessed to still be in operations.”
The state-funded program relies on in-person visits and classes to check in on foster children and to certify households to become foster homes. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it was ruled unsafe to continue to conduct these visits, Salinas said.
“Those visits are usually bullied to the state and it’s where a lot of our funding comes from but they didn’t allow for phone or video calls,” Salinas recalled. “Since the pandemic hit we started having monthly meetings with the state to try to get creative to continue to provide the services families in the area rely on.”
This led to the creation of a HIPPA complaint software program that allows Buckner agents to virtually connect with families in the program. Through this program, Buckner was able to do those local virtual adoptions and certifications.
“We’ve reached out electronically to the community, our challenge was getting into those homes and letting families know we’re here offering support,” Salinas said. “Our message whenever we see people virtually is that we’re all adjusting to this new way of life but we can help you and your family through this crisis.”
The virtual program allows eager expectant foster parents to continue participating in Buckner’s program to have their home certified as a foster home to house children in need. Up until this year, the program was done in a traditional classroom setting.
“Once we got the hang of it, it worked for us,” Salinas said. “At first we had to spend the start of the program showing parents how the software worked so they could participate in this application process, but we were able to do that. We’re always in need of new foster homes and thankfully we licensed seven new foster homes in 2020 through that process.”
Despite the success of the program, Salinas said several parents continue to struggle with the virtual program. As most community members served by Buckner are in rural areas, Salinas said the organization still struggles with successfully connecting with all families.
“It’s probably the biggest challenge we’ll see into the new year,” Salinas said. “For many people in the Valley we found many families lack the internet connectivity in the areas they lives to do the programs needed. Many families were successful in connecting with us but the ones who weren’t we had to switch to connecting with them through phone but that often resulted in a dropped call where we had to finish checking in on them later.”
The nine virtual adoptions that were done surpassed the goal that Salinas said the team at Buckner had.
“We hit it out of the ballpark, it’s a silver lining of the year,” Salinas said.
Typically, Buckner closes out the year with a toy drive where the organization accepts brand new toys to be gifted to foster homes in a public event. Due to the pandemic, foster children instead received a virtual storytelling event of “The Polar Express” and were gifted gift cards.
“We did see a decrease in donors so once we were able to adjust and do a little bit more- especially on Christmas when most people want to donate- we started the campaign of gift cards for families in favor of an in-kind gift,” Salinas said. “We’re trying to tell the community it will help us more to send us this.”
Many of the virtual visits that were successful yielded similar results, Salinas recalled.
“Many families we talked to were visibly stressed,” Salinas said. “Their struggles went up and were facing fears stemming from financial challenges during the pandemic such as a loss of a job or children struggling to connect at school. We’re trying to navigate that with them so they know they’re not alone.”