For a child, there is no substitute for the lively discussion, the eye contact, the emotional support, and the affection that take place within families. Jill Aspegren, Co-Executive Director of Casa Viva, offers a compelling appeal to care for children who have been separated from their families: “The time has come for the local church to learn again the ancient art of hospitality—to welcome the guest in the name of Christ. Children know when they have entered the home of a real family—the threshold is a sacred space.”
Prior to Casa Viva, Jill and her husband Philip codirected a children’s home and served as field directors overseeing various children’s projects, schools, and day programs in the Dominican Republic. With training and support from the Viva Network, the Aspegrens launched Casa Viva in Costa Rica in 2003. Their growing vision was to engage local families and churches to respond on behalf of children needing care, while developing models and systems that could be replicated throughout Central America. Over the past decade, Casa Viva has worked with hundreds of children who have been separated from families and connected them to family-based options for care. The organization also provides consulting and training seminars that inform and inspire others in the region to transition to family-based care.
Casa Viva partners with local churches who recruit and support those families in which children are placed. Some families care for children temporarily while permanent placement options are investigated, while others serve as longer-term foster or adoptive families. Priority is always placed on reuniting children with their own biological families, whether they be parents or extended family members (“kinship care”). When that option is not safe or available, children are placed into an alternative option on the continuum of family-based care.
The evidence-based findings expounded upon in Faith to Action Initiative’s Children, Orphanages, and Families: A Summary of Research to Help Guide Faith-Based Action confirm that families provide the optimum environment for child wellbeing and development: “A family is able to provide a child with love, a sense of belonging, and a lifelong connection to a community of people. Within families, children learn and participate in family and cultural traditions, have a sense of shared history, and learn important social skills that help them engage and interact as family and community members later in life” (page 7). Children in biological, kinship, foster, and adoptive families consistently demonstrate healthier social, intellectual, and physical development than those in residential facilities, even when good quality care is provided. Clearly, children thrive in families.
For the staff at Casa Viva, it was the recent example of a courageous grandmother that reminded them yet again of the sacred space filled by family. This grandmother’s story is rooted in a love for her family members, even though circumstances had created a distance between them. Her young granddaughters, Marisol and Vanessa, first began receiving support from Casa Viva when their parents were unable to provide adequate care due to chronic drug use, among other issues. The girls were placed temporarily in loving foster families via Casa Viva’s local church partnerships. These families began providing that sacred space for the girls’ healthy emotional, cognitive, and physical development, even while Casa Viva worked toward determining appropriate long-term placement options.
As Casa Viva families loved and cared for Marisol and Vanessa, God was working on the heart of their grandmother. She began diligently appearing in the court assigned to their case, demonstrating her desire and ability to care for the girls, and initiating visits with them. She, too, believed that restoring her biological family was God-ordained work. The grandmother has now welcomed her granddaughters into her home so they can grow up as a family together.
Through Casa Viva’s support, and through the willing heart of an extended family member, Marisol and Vanessa are now thriving in a family. God’s desire for Marisol and Vanessa—and indeed for all children—is to welcome them through the threshold of a home, and into that sacred space a family offers.