Vincent Smith believes in miracles. But he doesn’t just wait for them to happen. One Saturday each month, Smith, a web developer at Educational Testing Service, heads from the Mount Holly home he shares with his wife and three children to the St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton. For four hours on each of those Saturdays he brings his hope, his faith, and his belief in miracles to some children who desperately need all three.
Smith volunteers for Angel’s Wings, a private, non-profit shelter at St. Francis for children ages birth through 12 years who have been removed from their homes by the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) due to parental abuse or neglect, but for whom no foster homes are available. Providing a stable and comforting atmosphere for scared and confused children with no place else to go is no easy task, but with the help of 15 full-time staff and a whopping 350 volunteers, including Vincent Smith and his ETS colleague Jan Lewis, Angel’s Wings does just that.
If that’s not a miracle, Vincent Smith doesn’t know what is.
"Nothing can take the place of a real Mom and Dad," Smith says of his visits with the children of Angel’s Wings, "but I believe my prayers are being heard. These children are being healed, particularly of mental abuse, the scars we don’t see."
The Angel’s Wings facility occupies the entire seventh floor of the St. Francis Medical Center on Hamilton Avenue in Trenton, formerly the hospital’s pediatric ward. A bright and cheerful space that staffers only half-jokingly call "a cruise ship for kids," the facility boasts a playroom stocked with toys, a classroom, a computer room, an art room, a TV room, a kitchen and dining room, a number of bedrooms, and a nursery.
There’s space for 12 children. Given the shortage of foster homes and the fact that Angel’s Wings accepts DYFS-involved children from across a five-county swathe of central Jersey from Ocean to Hunterdon, it’s nearly always full. Most children stay for a month or six weeks before more permanent foster homes are found — or, more rarely, the children are returned to their parents or other family members.
The path children travel to Angel’s Wings and volunteers like Vincent Smith is not a happy one. The abuse and neglect that compel state authorities to remove children from their homes take many forms, horrors no child should face. Most commonly, however, the homes these children leave are scarred by substance abuse, which often means the children are no so much abused as simply ignored.
Today in New Jersey there are about 6,300 children in foster care in about 4,000 DYFS-approved foster homes. The children end up in the DYFS system in a variety of ways — through reports from teachers, neighbors, or family members. Often, especially in the case of substance abuse, they enter the system as the result of law enforcement activities involving their parents or caregivers.
Yet no matter how awful a child’s home may be, no matter how inadequate his or her care, being removed from that home by strangers — often in the middle of the night — is a childhood nightmare come true. Scared and confused does not even begin to describe the abject terror and total bewilderment many of these children experience.
Which is where Vincent Smith and his fellow Angel’s Wings volunteers come in. "They need attention," Smith says simply of the children he meets at Angel’s Wings. "We volunteers are there to try to help answer questions the children have — `what’s happening to me,’ `I want my mommy’ kinds of questions."
At least one volunteer is on hand at Angel’s Wings at all times, 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. Many, like Smith, serve one four-hour shift per month. Others do it once a week, and some spend 20 hours a week there. But all share the same goal: to talk to the children, read to them, play with them, comfort them, and generally show them that no matter what has happened to them in the past, there is someone who cares.
At the same time, the volunteers help the staff and DYFS caseworkers identify and address problems.
"We get them cleaned up, get them adjusted, watch for trouble signs, interview them a little bit," Smith says. "We look for signs of aggression, abnormal introvertedness. But mostly we’re just there to help, with bathing, with feeding, with laundry, with whatever needs to be done. Most of all, we’re there to be a friend."
For Smith, who has been with ETS since graduating from college 14 years ago and whose job as a web developer can best be described as chief troubleshooter for technical problems that arise in a variety of ETS web-based products, volunteering at Angel’s Wings is an extension of his Pentecostal faith.
Those who follow Christ, says Smith, will find that their faith leads them to do good works. "I’ve always had a feeling in my heart of a burden, if you can call it that, given to me by the Lord to witness and talk to children. Angel’s Wings is a place where I can share my faith, glorify God, and be who Christ made me to be."
Angel’s Wings volunteers come from a wide variety of backgrounds, outlooks, and careers. They have divergent reasons for volunteering, and bring all kinds of personalities and talents to their service. With 350 volunteers, you would expect no less, but the contrast between serious, religious, soft-spoken Vincent Smith and his garrulous, extroverted, free-spirited ETS colleague and fellow Angel’s Wings volunteer Jan Lewis proves it beyond any doubt.
"Volunteering with these kids you are doing God’s work, that’s the bottom line," says Lewis, a 24-year veteran of ETS who is a staff associate supporting five directors of new business ventures, agreeing in part with Vincent Smith’s reasons for volunteering. "But for me, it’s more than a duty. You can’t make somebody do this. You really have to love and care about children."
Lewis was among the very first Angel’s Wings volunteers when it was founded by a parishioner of Our Lady of Sorrows church in Hamilton in 1999. (The founder wishes to remain anonymous.) Little did Lewis know that her arrival at Angel’s Wings would change not only the lives of some very needy children, but her own as well.
"I was there when the first child arrived," Lewis recalls. "After that I did it every Saturday. But Angel’s Wings was a dangerous place for me. I’d go there and say, `I’ll take that one and that one and that one.’ I just don’t get that part about giving them back."
The stated goal of DYFS, and by extension Angel’s Wings, is to reunite children with their families. But that’s not always possible. So this past August, Lewis legally adopted a two-year-old boy who arrived at Angel’s Wings at three months of age and left a month later with Lewis as his foster mother. That boy’s brother joined them this past February 28th — "a snow blizzard, and my birthday," Lewis recalls — and she’s now in the process of legally adopting the second child as well.
"In order to take children into your home, you must be DYFS-certified," Lewis says. The certification involves background checks, training classes, and CPR training. Every Angel’s Wings volunteer must complete this process, which can take up to six months, but Lewis went one step further, earning certification not just as an Angel’s Wings volunteer, but additional steps to qualify as a foster parent. "I didn’t do this training to become a foster parent, I just wanted to be able to pick them up, bring them home, take them to the movies, that type of thing. Now I’m a volunteer for life."
Unmarried and with no biological children of her own, Lewis was born and raised in Princeton, where her father was a police officer. She declines to specify her age, but given that she has worked at ETS for 24 years, it’s safe to say that she finds herself a single working mother of two toddlers at a point in life when many moms are sending the kids off to college. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
"I’m in love with these boys," she says. "Sure it’s hard to be a single mother. But I have no regrets. Had I known then when I know now, I would still have done it."
With two children of her own to take care of, Lewis no longer has the time to volunteer at the center as a caregiver. But her involvement with Angel’s Wings has not ended. She continues to recruit volunteers — about 15 so far, including Vincent Smith — and serves on the organization’s board.
"It’s really a hands-on kind of board," Lewis says. "We make rules and regulations, take care of personnel, make sure our licensing is up to date and in order, and have people who do development and all kinds of things. If you’re going to have a board, it needs to be hands-on, because it is the engine that runs the organization."
Wendy Kendrick, full-time program director at Angel’s Wings, agrees. Angel’s Wings relies on its board and other volunteers to an extent unmatched by almost any other organization.
"We have 350 active volunteers, and we need every single one of them," says Kendrick, who started with Angel’s Wings as a volunteer in 1999 and has been a staff member since 2001. "The volunteers are very important essentially give the kids most of the love they get. We full-time employees get to do all the parental stuff, homework, baths, meals. But the volunteers play with them, plan fun activities, take them on fun outings, teach them how to experience and enjoy life."
Because about half of the children who enter the facility have drug involvement in their families, simply paying attention to children is most of what volunteering at Angel’s Wings is all about.
"In a normal home, life is completely kid-centered," Kendrick explains. "But the homes our kids come from aren’t like that. In their homes, life is centered around addiction, and the kids are easily neglected. So a big part of what our volunteers do is develop trust — help the kids understand that adults are here to help them. Really simple things, like getting three meals a day, are really great gifts for our kids."
Volunteering at Angel’s Wings is not for everyone, Kendrick admits. Some volunteers find that dealing with abused and neglected children makes them unbearably sad. Others find it too hard to send the children away to permanent foster homes or their families after their stay, which seldom exceeds six weeks, a task that is hard even for the full-time staffers who do it every day.
But for others, volunteering at Angel’s Wings is a joy. That was the case for Kendrick, a former office assistant who after she began volunteering "just didn’t want to go back to my job anymore, I just wanted to be here, so I hounded them until they had a job for me."
Angel’s Wings changes lives. It gives desperately needy children a home filled with hope, and with luck and hard work sets them on the path to finding a permanent home with loving parents. It gave Wendy Kendrick a new and fulfilling career. It gives Vincent Smith the chance to live his faith and create miracles. And it gave Jan Lewis a family.
"It’s a hard job, very emotional, but very rewarding," Lewis says. "These little tiny human beings have been through more in their two or however-many years than you or I have been through in a whole life. These children are so very special and so very delicate in terms of where they’ve come from and why they’re there. And to help all you need is an overabundance of love."
#h#How You Can Help#/h#
There is a woman in Hamilton who takes in foster children. One day, she was asked to take in one more, and she realized she just didn’t have the room. So she founded Angel’s Wings.
That woman wishes to remain anonymous, but the organization she founded does not. It needs your help.
"We have state funds through DYFS, but we raise about 25 percent of our annual budget through donations," explains Judy Hutton, executive director of both Angel’s Wings and Anchor House, a shelter and service center for homeless and abused children ages 10 through 17, with which Angel’s Wings will merge in 2004.
"We are very similar in our missions — helping runaway homeless and abused kids — and are looking to merge our programs so that we can have one solid continuum of care, birth through 21, and any kid who needs help can get services," says Hutton. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth, Class of 1976, she has her doctoral degree from Trenton State and was a social worker before becoming executive director of Anchor House 20 years ago.
Teens from 10 to 17 who need emergency shelter stay at Anchor House, and there is a transitional living program for those 16 to 21. Meanwhile Angel’s Wings takes children from birth to 12. "The overlap affords us the flexibility to decide which is the best program for a particular child," says Hutton.
By next spring Angel’s Wings will be operating as a program within Anchor House. The boards of the two organizations have been planning the merger for 18 months, and the merger begins on January 1. Together the organizations have a $1.8 million budget, and though some government funding is available they are dependent on donations. In order to staff three 24/7 programs they have 30 full time employees and 40 part-timers.
To raise funds, Angel’s Wings will sponsor its annual "From Your Heart" gala on Saturday, February 7, at the Lafayette Yard Marriott, with dinner, dancing, and a silent auction. In keeping with the Angel’s Wings philosophy, the event will be planned and staged entirely by volunteers ($125 per person, www.angels-wings.org/FYH2004/joinUs.shtml).
You can also help by donating to the silent auction or by bringing in an item from the Angel’s Wings "Needs List" (www.angels-wings.org/GetInvolved/needsList.shtml), which includes everything from toys to sneakers to diapers. One special request, if you happen to have one lying around, is for a four-child stroller.
Even with 350 active volunteers, Angel’s Wings can always use more. Even if you feel that working directly with the children is not for you, there are plenty of opportunities to help with clerical, organizational, and logistical tasks. Contact Michael Schaefer, volunteer development officer, at MSchaefer@angels-wings.org or by telephone at 609-392-6100, ext. 104.
And of course, cash donations are always welcome and are fully tax deductible. Send your check to Angel’s Wings Inc., 601 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton 08629.
Angel’s Wings, 601 Hamilton Avenue, Seventh Floor, Trenton 08629-1915. 609-392-6100; fax, 609-392-0651. Www.angels-wings.org
Anchor House, 482 Center Street, Trenton 08611. Judy Hutton, executive director. 609-396-8329; fax, 609-396-1239. Home page: www.anchorhousenj.org