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Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery plants seeds to strengthen family relationships for children

By Sarah Marken

Every day, Heidi Cook saw children leave the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery better than when they arrived, because they were given love and a seed of knowledge about family life through games, attention from volunteers and staff, and mealtime structure. 

This nonprofit provides a refuge to children and resources to strengthen families as it offers emergency respite care for children from birth through age six when they may be abused or neglected because of family crises. 

Heidi Cook
Heidi Cook

As director, Heidi’s priority is just to make sure one more child is safe and loved.

“Each moment is a gift to make that difference,” she said.

Children can stay up to 72 hours per visit.  The nursery provides support—such as diapers and formula to families who cannot afford them—along with parenting support and education.

Heidi said her experience growing up outside of Grand Coulee, where she attended the Church of the Nazarene, introduced her to lessons of neighborly love and a commitment to community. 

Her career has evolved through community involvement from childhood, working in her church and school. 

Family and church experiences guided her to study at Eastern Washington University and eventually to a bachelor of general studies degree in organizational leadership and communication in 2004 at Gonzaga University. 

Excited to work in “the real world,” Heidi stepped out of the classroom in Cheney early to work in public relations and fund raising with the American Heart Association and American Red Cross.  She was executive director of the Cheney Chamber of Commerce, the Inland Northwest Electrical League and Cancer Patient Care.

In September 2004, she started at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, drawn by its mission to provide a safe haven to children and to build up families. 

“Children deserve a safe place in this world,” she said. 

Through 2004, with the help of volunteers and donors, the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery has helped about 42,000 children since it was started in 1987 in a house at 1004 E. 8th Ave.  In 2000, a new building and expanded facility was completed at the same location.

“Poverty, homelessness and domestic violence are just a few reasons parents seek our help,” she said.  “Overall, we are here to support families who have no safety net when they need it.”

Heidi Cook
Heidi said parents need role models.

The crisis nursery raised funds to care for more than 3,100 children in 2005, but the need is greater than the funding, so the nursery had to turn away 1,348 children in 2005.

The nursery models a way of life for both children and parents.

Each day staff and volunteers introduce children to fundamental aspects of community life as they play and share with each other, eat dinner as a “family” and experience love and encouragement. 

There are also classes in basic parenting skills. 

Without role models or support groups, parents might lack understanding about caring for a child, Heidi said.

In the midst of daily stresses, parents needing respite can find at this nursery a safe community for their children, so the stress doesn’t lead to abuse or neglect.

Both at the nursery and in volunteer positions, Heidi has learned to work with people who have different personality and leadership styles, but share a passion and mission she finds prevalent in the nonprofit world. 

“Volunteers come with their own skill sets which allow the organization to run fluidly,” she said.  “Not everyone wants to play with children.   Some mow the lawn, organize the parents’ shelf or ensure our fund-raising efforts are successful.

“Jesus did not isolate himself with the people of means but rather spent his time with those who were without hope.  Through Jesus’ love they found hope and acceptance,” Heidi said.  “The Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery is a place where parents and children find acceptance and hope.

“We live in a world that can be self-centered.  I love working with people who put that aside to make others feel better,” she said. 

“I see my role as developing people,” she said.

As a result of needing more house parents to prevent turning children away, the crisis nursery is launching a certified house-parent program, which will train volunteers to work as house parents.

“We have beds available for more children, but not the financial resources.  Filling to capacity means taking in 23 children instead of 12, so more children can be at the crisis nursery when they need to be there,” she said.  “The certified house-parent program provides us with the ability to staff for additional children without needing additional funding.”

Congregations that provide volunteers help extend funding.

Heidi said, for example, that interested members of a women’s group may be trained as certified house parents and commit as a group to swing shift on Tuesdays, taking turns on a rotating basis to provide extra staffing.

Opportunity Fellowship’s men’s group recently volunteered to do janitorial work once a week, saving the crisis nursery the cost of hiring janitorial staff. 

Each Wednesday, two men in a Bible study group will come—again taking turns on a rotating basis—and clean the building.

Youth groups have diaper, food and formula drives.  Women’s groups often make quilts to give to families.

Church groups also help with fund-raising drives.

Not receiving government funds or fees for service, the nursery is a “gift from the community,” relying on individual, business and foundation giving.

“Our food budget would skyrocket without donations from the community,” she said.

The nursery’s needs list at vanessabehan.org suggests tangible gifts such as canned or fresh fruits and vegetables, snack foods, peanut butter and jam, cereals, breads, meats, cheese, milk, infant food items, arts and crafts supplies, household items, clothing and office supplies.

Heidi hopes to improve the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery one step at a time. 

For her, success often comes by taking responsibility when things go wrong and giving praise when things go right. 

 

Medallion

 

 

A bronze sculpture, “Loving Care,” summarized Spokane artist Dorothy Fowler’s impression of the nursery, depicting a house parent and children. 

On the back of a medallion minted by New Light Industries in Coeur d’Alene for a fund raiser are the words:  “It takes many hearts and hands to raise a child.”