PINCKNEYVILLE — Natural light streams into the front and back windows and doors of the house, where some children's shoes are in the floor and a baby doll rests atop the kitchen table.

A 3 1/2- and a 4 1/2-year-old occasionally interrupts a conversation, showing off a small yellow and black maraca, pumping body lotion into one half of an empty plastic pink Easter egg or climbing in the chair behind Leah Wagner to pull her brown hair back into a ponytail.

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Safe Families in Perry County

A 4 1/2-year-old boy, who has lived with a Perry County family for the past two years, makes a ponytail with Leah Wagner's hair.

It's not quite where Jeff and Leah Wagner envisioned their life would be a few years ago, with all three of their sons in or approaching their teenage years, but this is it now.

This is life as a host family with the Chicago-headquartered Safe Families for Children, a church-based initiative that places the children whose families are in crisis with volunteer, pre-screened caring families.

"This is a ministry that was formed to help kids in crisis, whether their parents have been injured, whether there's some addictions going on, some difficult family situations," Leah said. "This ministry was created to step in and provide a safe place for the kids to land, a safe place for children to spend for awhile, till their parents are rehabilitated. It involves a church family, the whole church family."

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Safe Families

Leah Wagner is shown at her home in Pickneyville Wednesday. She and her husband Jeff have cared for several children through the Safe Families Program.

The average assignment is about two years, said Leah, who had taken on children three times prior to that.

So she didn't think anything would be different with this 18-month-old and the 2-year-old the couple agreed to allow to stay in their home.

Unfortunately, the children's family situation became so tenuous, that DCFS became involved and the siblings had to be placed in foster care. The Wagners, who had never intended to go into foster care, became licensed as a foster care home to keep the brother and sister.

She said her family would like to keep the two young siblings "forever."

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Safe Families

Children's hand prints are imprinted in concrete in front of the home of Jeff and Leah Wagner.  Grass covers the names of the two siblings— who are now in state-supervised foster care with the Wagners — who have been with the Wagner family for the past two years.

What is Safe Families for Children?

Safe Families for Children was created in 2003 in Chicago as a non-profit volunteer organization to help families in distress, according to its website. It has operations in about 70 cities in the United States, with others in Canada, the United Kingdom, Kenya and other countries.

The program works by offering host families, those with whom children stay; family friends, who provide transportation, babysitting and meals and other support; resource friends, who donate lightly used items, such as beds, furniture and clothing; family coaches, volunteers who provide resources and caseworker-like services to families; Safe Families Plus mentors, volunteers who support young adults aging out of foster care; and the Safe Families churches, the spiritual communities that support the Safe Families concept in their churches.

The organization estimates that is has placed more than 20,000 children in Safe Families homes in the United States since its inception. The majority of the children are younger than five years of age; 93 percent return to their parents or caregivers who are better equipped to care for them, according to the Safe Families website.

The organization stresses that families do not receive or pay compensation for caring for the children and that is it not an adoption-type arrangement.

"It is just a wonderful ministry, and something that's very needed in this world," Leah Wagner said. "We help to reunite kids with their families and rehabilitate them and help them get back on their feet and avoid having to go into the foster-care system and all that. Parents have the right to get their kids back whenever they're ready. Wonderful, much-needed ministry."

She said she's surprised at how few people know about the organization and it works and has tried to reach out to other families, schools and law enforcement to share with them what a resource it can be for local families.

The organization is in the middle of its "Open Your Heart, Open Your Home" campaign, to increase from about 700 to 2,000 the number of participating churches by next February, according to Ryan Mobley, the director for the Central/Southern Illinois Network.

"The whole goal of this is that we’re able to support struggling families and give them, really give them the support they just don’t have, which helps them become stable and helps to prevent abuse and neglect in children, and helping families stay strengthened and then getting them connected to strong local communities through the local churches," Mobley said. "Every child we’re able to host, that keeps a child out of foster care…"

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Safe Families in Perry County in Perry County

This past week, Leah Wagner played with the 3 1/2- and 4 1/2-year-old children who came to her home as part of the Safe Families program.

That, he noted, benefits the greater community, as that is about $25,000 the state does not have to spend, per child, per year, for foster care churches.

Church members and others interested in participating can contact the Baptist Children's Home and Family Services in Carmi or visit the group's website — safe-families.org — and select the "Get Involved" tab. There are any number of roles to play, from being a Host Family, a Family Friend, a Resource Friend or a Family Coach.

Their church visited

The Wagners first learned of the program almost four years ago when a representative of the Safe Families organization came to visit their church, The Gathering in Coulterville. The church has about 75 to 100 members. The man spoke with their pastor at the time and Jeff Wagner, one of the pastor's assistants. Jeff Wagner now pastors the church.

After learning about the program, Leah said her family and her best friend's family decided to sign up for it. In a short while, the church was asked to host four brothers. Leah said she took the two older boys, a 14-year-old and an 8-year-old and her best friend took the younger two.

She said the boys' mother did not tell them that her oldest son had been abused in past living situations and frequently lashed out and cursed. Safe Families found another placement for the older brother, but the Wagners kept the younger boy for a while longer.

When Leah Wagner thinks about the program, she says she is reminded of the Bible scripture James 1:27, which says: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress …"

"It's been a blessing, it's been very difficult, but so worth it and so needed," Leah Wagner said.

stephanie.esters@thesouthern.com

618-351-5805

On Twitter: @scribeest

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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Murphysboro and Perry County.

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