Jacquelyn Cunningham felt a call to be a foster parent.
But after a few attempts, the fit, she said, just wasn’t right for her family.
“It didn’t work for us,” the Vincennes native said, “but I still felt like God was pulling me toward foster care.
“I just didn’t know how exactly.”
Cunningham said she began looking to get involved in group homes, a search that eventually led her to Tennessee-based Isaiah 117 House, a non-profit that builds transitional homes for children entering foster care.
She went to visit one, she said, and that call to foster care suddenly became more clear.
“I began reaching out to coordinators, met the founder (of the organization),” she said. “It took almost a year, but eventually I got permission to build a house right here in Knox County.”
Cunningham has recruited a group of local volunteers and, together, they make up the local chapter of Isaiah 117 House. Their charge: to raise upwards of $75,000 to build a home.
They held only their second-ever fundraiser Saturday, a lemonade stand contest on the city’s Riverwalk, and raised $5,000. To date, Cunningham said they’ve raised about $15,000.
The county commissioners, too, have given them a piece of ground on which to build near the old poor farm on South Sixth Street Road.
“And we don’t have to raise the full $75,000 before we can start building,” Cunningham explained. “People can donate money, or we have a lot of people ready to donate labor, (in-kind) donations like flooring, cabinets, sinks, paint, plumbing, that kind of thing.
“And we welcome that. It helps us get to our goal and it makes the community feel like it’s their home, too.”
The Isaiah 117 House — not to be confused with the Isaiah 117 Project, which is a completely separate non-profit that looks to distribute backpacks to children in need — was founded in Tennessee in 2017 but has now expanded to 23 sites across two states.
There are four Hoosier counties pursuing construction of their own Isaiah 117 homes, Cunningham said, specifically Boone, Marion, Vanderburgh and, now, Knox.
Vanderburgh County just opened their Isaiah 117 House last week.
The Isaiah 117 House serves as a transitional home for youngsters who are entering the foster care system.
When a child is removed from their home, whether by police or by the Department of Child Services, they would be taken directly to Isaiah 117 House rather than the police department to await placement.
“And these houses are equipped with everything a traditional home would be,” Cunningham said. “It will have clean clothes, new shoes, beds. Kids can have a bath, a shower with all the essentials. And they’ll be able to take those things with them when they leave, too.
“It will be fully stocked with food, snacks, slime-making kits, a table with arts and crafts supplies, a swing set in the back. It’s going to have every comfort of a kid-friendly home, including bright colors, fuzzy blankets, warm couches and kid-friendly pictures all over.”
The home, too, will have an office for the DCS worker to embark on the official placement of the child; the DCS worker, Cunningham said, is with the child from removal until placement.
Local Isaiah 117 House volunteers, too, will be on hand to respond.
“I’ll respond as will one or two volunteers,” Cunningham said of when a child is placed in the home, a placement that is not to exceed 24 hours. “We’ll be there to make them a meal, give them a bath, play games, whatever they want to do.
“Our volunteers undergo background checks and training. They’ll know how to talk to a child that is experiencing that kind of trauma. They’re not sure when they’ll get to see mom and dad again. They don’t know when they’ll get to see their teachers again. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and they often think it’s their fault. So as volunteers, we’ll be trained to deal with all of that and try to bring a smile to their faces.”
But as with so many things, COVID-19 has up-ended Cunningham’s fundraising plans; attendance to the lemonade stand contest wasn’t as she had hoped, and a major luncheon planned for September has had to be modified.
She’s now looking for families to host their own, smaller fundraising parties to raise money for construction.
The group also wants to raise another $75,000, enough to fund the Isaiah 117 House for a full two years.
“We had several big events planned, and COVID just completely knocked them all out,” she said. “So now we’re looking to smaller events, to churches, things like that. Many have done their own thing, taken up collections.”
Cunningham said they are also selling t-shirts, which are available at a handful of locations, including The Faith Store, Attic Salt Boutique and Mads and Abby Boutique, all located on downtown Main Street.
Anyone wanting to donate — whether money or in-kind services — can contact Cunningham at 812-881-6110.
People can also make donations directly to the Knox County effort by visiting www.isaiah117house.com.