Patty’s Hope, Richmond’s Hope
Written by Anne Smith
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” James 1:27
Lately, I have felt a huge burden to pray for Richmond as a city, to pray for revival and to pray for flourishing, especially within the body of Christ. I believe Richmond has a special identity and unique gifts to offer both our greater community and the larger world. Our city boasts diversity on every front— race, denominations, economy, and even restaurants. We live in a city meant to shine, for as Matthew 5:14 declares “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” Richmond is meant to thrive and to give birth to new ideas, new industries, and new ministries.
Today, I want to draw your attention to one of those “new” ministries, as in never-been-done-before-ministries, in Richmond and its co-founder, Leila Gunning. The ministry is called Patty’s Hope and it certainly gives hope not only to those directly impacted but also for our greater city and community.
Patty’s Hope is an openly Christian organization that walks alongside mothers whose children are in the foster system. It is a non-profit that “provides practical help, hope, and healing for biological mothers of children in foster care. We partner with local organizations and the Christian community to implement a holistic, individualized program with a focus on four areas: Safe Housing, Trauma Recovery, Life Skills, and Healthy Community,” explains Leila.
I recently sat down with Leila to hear more about their story and this unique, one-of-a-kind ministry birthed in Richmond. “My husband and I moved to Richmond from Sydney, Australia a little over 9 years ago. We were in the throes of infertility and moved to Richmond to be closer to family,” Leila began. Upon arriving, they learned about adoption through fostering and attended a Richmond City Foster Care Orientation. “I will never forget when my husband and I got in the car that night after hearing about the NEED in this city. We just looked at each other and knew there was no way we could say no.”
According to VAkidsbelong.org, there are over 5,000 children in Virginia’s foster care system, with a significant increase in the need for foster families in the last three years. Additionally, Virginia ranks 50th out of 50 states for permanency, with 500 children aging out of the foster care system each year.
“On July 27, 2012 we got the call for our first foster placement, two day old baby, Nikole Faith, and we stepped out in faith, said yes, and our lives changed forever! Nikole stayed with us for just a few weeks before being reunited with her mother, Patty. We felt the Lord lead us to ask Patty if we could stay in her life and be a support system. We felt determined to be positive, stable people in her life, and began to see how far a little support, stability, housing and genuine love can go,” Leila reflects.
As Leila and her husband stepped into the broken lives of others, God began breaking their hearts not only for the children in the foster care system but also for the moms of these children. “Jesus did what only He can do— fill us with His compassion for biological mothers of the children in the system.” Jesus doesn’t say turn away from the hard, messy lives, He says, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Through their trauma-focused program, Patty’s Hope aims to honor Jesus by lending a welcoming, safe, and open heart to mothers whose hearts are hurting and torn apart.
Leila and her husband made a commitment to hear the story behind the birth mothers of the children they fostered, and to love those women by offering grace, hope and the hands-on support often lacking in their lives. “Our hope is that every biological mother of a child in our foster care will have the opportunity to encounter God’s love, experience deep healing, and have a healthy relationship with their child,” Leila says.
More often than not, organizations and churches focus on the children in foster care. Children are indeed the future but children grow up and those grown-up children need as much love and support. Their situation is often a result of cyclical patterns and not just birthed from one bad decision of the parents. Behind every foster child is a mother, a mother who has lost her child.
The terrible choices that lead the State of Virginia to take a child from its mother often stems from abuse, trauma, poverty, and pain they themselves faced in childhood. “It has been messy and heartbreaking work, but Jesus has made it so clear to us He loves these mothers as much as He loves their children.” For Richmond to break forth and flourish, we must support the least-of-these and partner with the God who longs to breaks chains and set captives free.
We all know the proverbial phrase the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. To change a tree’s fruit we must heal the tree’s root system. Many of the mothers grew up in the foster system or were victims of abuse and trauma at a young age. “Many of these moms have been set-up to fail,” Leila said, “they have been on a pathway of trauma and destruction. When we pour into the moms the hope is we can break the cycle! Though it’s easier to focus on the kids, they are not the root of the problem. Jesus often pairs orphans and widows, he connects mothers and children. We need to minister to these moms, but I’m here to tell you it’s really, really, really hard,” Leila honestly tells me.
Patty’s Hope aims to ideally connect mothers in their program with women and families in the community who won’t be burned out once the relationship gets tough because “that is their story, people giving up on them.” Leila continues, “these women need people in their lives that aren’t going anywhere, no matter what happens. They need families like the kids do.” Their hearts’ cry is the cry of a child calling out for a family and a community to nurture and love them.
“We are still pretty new but I am so grateful for some small tastes of seeing clients transformed mentally, physically, and spiritually; hopefully leading to lifelong health and stability,” explains Leila. In the words of one of the mothers in Patty’s Hope: “They have worked with me on a level that is more in tune with my life, what is expected of me, and how I can get there to achieve it. More than anyone else they guided me through my own pitfalls and helped me to the other side.” Another mother says, “This is my testimony for other moms who feel as if they have lost everything because of life’s ups and downs, all things are possible. My faith in God has helped me to look at every situation with promise. For my fellow sisters and moms out there in a similar situation, things can and will get better. Connecting with the right people and organizations will be key, I am thankful for my partnerships and Patty’s Hope.”
Leila and her husband opened their home to foster children and ended up opening their hearts to ones who lost their children. Not everyone is called to adopt or foster or walk alongside a biological mom but everyone that is following Jesus is called to care for the orphan and the widow. Greater Richmond is made up of more than 1 million souls, all of whom are made in His image. For our city to flourish as a Kingdom city on on the Hill, let us start by living what Christ commanded “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
The crisis is solvable and the answer is us, the body of Christ. Is God’s arm too short to save? We, the body of Christ, are the living breathing personification of Jesus on earth right now. Pray that through coming together, Richmond may give the world a faith-based model of being life-givers to others. Let us bless one another not curse each other, let us reach out to those hurting, and choose to partner with what God is doing in this rich-mound of earth we call Richmond.
If you would like to reach Patty’s Hope, please email them at [email protected] or call 804.781.4657.