Rachel Cooke's passion is children — especially children who may be traumatized by the foster care system.
As a foster parent for the past 25 years, Cooke has seen how being thrown into that system can be scary for children who don't understand what is happening to them.
So she came up with an idea to try to make the transition period for these children easier, or at least a little less terrifying — “Fostering Hope,” a project that creates canvas bags containing comfort items for the new foster children.
And she wanted the project to be completed by children, so they would not only have a chance to help others but also learn to be thankful for the good lives they enjoyed.
As the director of children's ministries at Elkhorn Hills United Methodist Church in the Elkhorn area, she was in the position to find the kids to participate in “Fostering Hope” — children who attended vacation Bible school at her church.
They helped fund “Fostering Hope” and created the bags. St. John Lutheran Church in Bennington became a partner in the project.
After decorating the bags, children at both churches filled each one with a fleece blanket, a handmade teddy bear, a toy, a night light and a package of Goldfish crackers. In addition, toothbrushes and toothpaste donated by dentists in Missouri and Gretna were added.
The project was partially funded by money dropped into coin cyclones labeled “Change for Change.”
“We wanted to make it a community project,” she said. The coin collectors ended up raising more than $800 at the two churches.
In her experience, Cooke said, there's a real need for comfort.
“A foster child's first contact is a police officer,” she said. “Then it's a social worker.”
The session with the social worker can sometimes last three hours or more while arrangements are worked out, she said. The bags will be given to bewildered children who are waiting to hear what their futures hold.
“We wanted to give them something that would be theirs,” Cooke said. “Sometimes they arrive with just the clothes on their backs.”
The first batch of 120 bags will go to the Nebraska Families Collaborative. Future bags will go to other agencies or organizations that work with foster children.
“If we can make a difference in a child's life, then our lives take on extra meaning,” she said.
Now that Bible school is over, Cooke plans to continue the project at her church's Wednesday evening M&M program for kindergarten to fifth-grade kids. The M&M program “is like a day in vacation Bible school every week.”
Cooke was born and raised in the Omaha area; she graduated from Papillion-La Vista High School. In 1988, she moved to Kansas, where she began working with foster children, and lived there until three years ago.
Her mother, grandmother and other family members still live here. So when husband Scott was given a choice of job locations and Omaha was one of them, she told him, “I want to go home.”
Between raising nine children — a mix of biological, adopted and foster children — and her work at the church, Cooke is left with little spare time.
However, she does admit to being one of Barry Manilow's biggest fans. “If I have down time and he's playing anywhere close, I'm catching that concert.”
But make no mistake. Kids are the center of both her private and professional lives.