February 28, 2024

Jasper County nonprofit provides safe space and resources for vulnerable children and families

Open Arms Foundation establishes a family room and resource center in Newton for local providers

Nicholas Pietrack, assistant county attorney and founder of the Open Arms Foundation Jasper County, shows off the family room of the newly established nonprofit, which aims to improve the lives of children in foster care and those who had to be removed from families due to abuse.

It was 8 o’clock on a school night when Ashley and Jaci Umbarger, of Newton, were called to care for two children in foster placement, but instead of being able to spend those first few moments building connections with the kids, they had no choice but to go to the local Walmart to shop for new wardrobes and other items.

They did not know their children in foster care would be arriving to them with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Neither child would have been able to dress for school for the next day or bring back their homework or stay warm with a winter coat. They didn’t even have extra pairs of socks or underwear with them.

“It was pretty intense,” Ashley recalled. “So what we had to do was pack up our kids and those two kids and off we went to Walmart instead of bonding and trying to make the kids feel comfortable the first few hours. We had to just go get prepared to have them with us, not knowing what kind of situation they were in.”

Those initial interactions are important in establishing trust between the kids and foster parents, even more so because Ashley and Jaci have their own children who have to be introduced to their new foster siblings. Ashley said placement families want to make sure kids feel safe and comfortable.

Unplanned trips to Walmart may not seem like much of a disruption, but they can be. Stories like these are common amongst foster parents, and it was this exact story in particular that helped propel the creation of the Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County, founded in 2023 by assistant county attorney Nicholas Pietrack.

The organization held an open house last week, and it was the first time Ashley and Jaci got to see the nonprofit’s family room and resource center, the latter of which had an entire shelf filled with backpacks. Each was packed with essential items a child might need during their initial entry into foster care.

Nicholas Pietrack, assistant county attorney and founder of the Open Arms Foundation Jasper County, shows off the First Night Backpacks by the newly established nonprofit, which aims to improve the lives of children in foster care and those who had to be removed from families due to abuse.

Inspired by the previous foster parents’ story, Pietrack calls them “First Night Backpacks,” and the goal of these packs is to ensure that from the very first day in foster care, children feel loved and cared for and supported. This is what the Umbargers had hoped for. This is what they needed for that past placement.

“If it would’ve been here, this is something we would’ve utilized,” Ashley said.

WHAT IS THE OPEN ARMS FOUNDATION?

Founded in 2023 by Pietrack and a multidisciplinary team of professionals, the Open Arms Foundation is deeply committed to the well-being of the community it serves and to its programs that are tailored to address the unique needs of Jasper County children and families.

Open Arms wants to offer comfort and support at critical moments, fortify foster families and turn dreams into reality for at-risk children. The nonprofit also wants to reduce the emotional and psychological impact on vulnerable children and support child welfare staff and foster/biological families.

In addition to the First Night Backpacks program, Open Arms also leverages community resources to empower foster families to provide the best care for their foster children through the Fortifying Foster Families program, or what is often referred to as the “F3″ program.

The mission of Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County is to provide immediate and meaningful support to vulnerable children and families in the area.

With the addition of its new facility located in the former Newton Manufacturing building at 1123 First Ave. E., Suite B, the foundation is also able to distribute essential items for children, foster families and the greater community through its resource center. Pietrack said this is all part of a smoother transition process.

“Initially our thought is to really try to focus on the children that are involved in child-in-need-of-assistance cases or that court process foster care, but we don’t want to limit ourselves to that,” Pietrack said. “We want to expand it to any child, any family within Jasper County.”

After being accepted for a donation from the Jasper County Opioid Settlement Committee in 2023, Open Arms found the footing it needed to settle into a space of its own. Pietrack said it was a tremendous offering that has gone a long way into establishing the nonprofit in the community.

FAMILY ROOM CREATES SAFE SPACE FOR SMOOTH TRANSITIONS

The nonprofit’s facility is open 24/7 and is broken down into two spaces — a family room and the resource center — and it is only accessible by local providers, including but not limited to law enforcement agencies and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Vibrant and colorful decorations (including a very fitting multi-colored handprint and footprint rug that truly does tie the room together) make the family room a more welcoming and laid back environment for visitations, or for when children have to be away from their parents or guardians for a short time.

“If there is a removal in the middle of the night, they can bring a child here while they’re waiting for placement,” Pietrack said. “Sometimes placement comes from different counties or out of state. Finding a foster family that is available just takes time. So we can bring them here.”

Sabrina Clement, a legal assistant at the Jasper County Attorney’s Office, was pivotal in launching the Open Arms Foundation. She said the family room was designed to be a less traumatic space, and she hopes it will provide a huge benefit to the children and families who will use it.

“There are comforting blankets and toys to play with, versus being in the police station or the DHS office where there might not be as many amenities,” Clement said. “And I think the community also benefits from having the space because family visitations can happen here, if need be, and it feels like a home setting.”

The family room of the Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County is an inviting environment that organizers hope will be used for visitations.

The room is equipped with a giant beanbag, a teepee, plenty of toys and a comfy couch with pillows adorned with uplifting phrases like: “Be kind to one another,” “Be brave” and “Let your light shine.” Clement said the environment innately lowers the stress level of families and kids. It would be hard not to feel comfortable.

RESOURCE CENTER OFFERS NEEDED ITEMS FOR KIDS & FAMILIES

The resource center is already stocked with blankets, clothes, personal hygiene items and snacks. Open Arms volunteers has even stocked shelves with baby items, including formula and diapers. Of course this is also where the nonprofit organization stores its First Night Backpacks.

Pietrack said what often happens is children in critical moments may not be able to grab things from their house to take with them to a foster family placement.

“Or, quite frankly, they may not have the things to grab,” Pietrack said. “So this will supply them immediate need after a removal.”

The Umbargers’ feedback was crucial in that regard. Indeed it was conversations with them and providers around the area that influenced a lot of the decision making behind Open Arms. It also showed Pietrack that there is a need for a resource center for the community as a whole.

The resource center at the Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County features First Night Backpacks, which are filled with essential items a child might need during their initial entry into foster care.

“We want to open it up to school resource officers or teachers or counselors that see a kid in need or has worn the same jacket or shoes that have holes in them,” he said. “So just sort of expand that resource center beyond kids just entering the foster care system.”

As an attorney for Jasper County, Pietrack is often working through cases where something bad has happened and requires the removal of a child. While he wants Open Arms to offer support to those children, he does not want to close off opportunities to help families in the community too.

“There are some parents that just don’t have the resources, so we want to still be able to provide for additional resources for people that are not involved in the system,” Pietrack said, suggesting an opportunity for single moms to obtain needed items may be a future endeavor.

OPEN ARMS MAKES SURE THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT

While guests toured the Open Arms facility at its Feb. 1 open house, a TV played a presentation on repeat, and it included various statistics that showed a nonprofit like this is needed in the community. These were the trends Pietrack was exposed to when handling cases at the county attorney’s office.

The Greater Newton Area Chamber of Commerce holds a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County on Feb. 1 outside the nonprofit's family room and resource center.

For instance, the Open Arms Foundation said 89 percent of founded child abuse reports in 2022 were directly linked to illegal narcotics, whether they were present in the child’s home, used by parents or resulted in the child testing positive for a substance. It is a troubling statistic.

From 2022 to 2023, there were 177 founded child abuse assessments in Jasper County. Pietrack has worked directly with the professionals in the area who help these kids. He saw how hard they worked and how often they scrambled for resources in some instances, inspiring him to form a nonprofit.

“We saw that as an opportunity to step in and assist with that,” Pietrack said.

Following in the footsteps of like-minded organizations like the Jasper County Drug Endangered Children group, Open Arms creates an image of being open and accepting for all situations, regardless of circumstances, to make sure that children and families feel safe and supported.

When Pietrack first began pitching his idea of Open Arms to area providers, they immediately recognized what a benefit it would be to the community. He learned some workers at the local Department of Health and Human Services had to travel out of county to secure free diapers for a family.

“That’s wonderful that there is an opportunity to go get diapers for free for children in need, but why are we sending our workers outside of county to go do this? That should just be here. So I do think there is a need here,” Pietrack said of the Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County.

Clement was almost in tears thinking about the positive impact Open Arms will have on kids in the community.

“There is now a place where they can feel comfortable and have resources available to them, a place where every child is loved,” Clement said.

The kind of love that can only be shown with Open Arms.

To learn more about the Open Arms Foundation of Jasper County, contact leaders directly at openarmsiowa@gmail.com.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.