“These are my children. What are you going to do?”
Those are the words Ronda Paulson heard in 2014 — and she believes they came from God.
The words led her to found Isaiah 117 House — a nonprofit organization that provides a safe space for children who have been taken from their homes into Tennessee Department of Children’s Services custody until caseworkers can find foster homes for them.
And the organization’s reach is about to grow to serve kids in Sullivan, Greene and Washington counties in addition to those served at the Carter County house.
Seeing the need
During an eight-week class that Paulson, founder and executive director of Isaiah 117 House, and her husband, Corey, were taking through DCS to prepare to be foster parents, the instructor said children removed from their homes are taken to DCS offices, where they sometimes sleep overnight until a foster home is found. Just the night before, a young girl slept in the office they were sitting in.
“As a mom, my heart just went out to her and broke for her,” Paulson said. “I just kept seeing her — this little girl who had left her only mama she’d ever known. Even though we might not approve [of the mother], she did. If she was allowed to bring anything, and usually you’re not, it was in a black trash bag at her feet, and now she’s sleeping in this outdated conference room awaiting her fate.”
It was three years after hearing those words before she and her husband knew what to do. A hint came when they brought their first foster son, 9-month-old Isaiah, home in November 2015 and started reading the book of Isaiah in the Bible to him.
“We landed on Isaiah 1:17 and part of that verse says, ‘Defend the cause of the fatherless,’” Paulson said.
Over the next two years, the Paulsons learned about the DCS and foster care systems and what the children taken into DCS custody go through. They quickly found out children don’t have much when they’re taken into custody. Isaiah was brought to them wearing clothes that were too small because his were so filthy caseworkers had to scramble to find clothes for him in their office. And the only possession he had was a roach-infested diaper bag.
As they learned to be foster parents, they began piecing together a vision of how to “defend the fatherless.” Isaiah 1:17 and their son’s first name sparked the name of the nonprofit.
“He [Isaiah] was the one that taught me about the system,” Paulson said. “He was the one that I went to court with … and family visitation and child and family team member meetings. He showed me this whole system, and it changed me.”
The Paulsons took in a second foster son, Isaiah’s brother, 3-week-old Eli, in 2017 and adopted both boys on National Adoption Day last year.
For the Paulsons, the journey of foster care, adoption and founding a nonprofit has been “unbelievable,” Paulson said.
“It’s just been so good for our family — just to step outside ourselves, see the needs of others, and try to answer those needs,” she said.
A vision filled
In January 2017, Paulson said she researched online how to start a nonprofit. One of the first steps is to form a board of directors. That was accomplished in February, then the group started laying out their dream and vision of a home for children to go to on “the most traumatic day of their life.”
Paulson said their vision was a house filled with fun colors, toys, a fully stocked kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room where kids could eat, bathe, have their clothes washed and play on a play set in the yard. They also knew they wanted to send the kids to their foster homes with as many necessary belongings as possible — clothes, a toy, hygiene items, school supplies, and wipes, diapers and formula for babies.
In the summer of 2017, Paulson found out a friend was selling a house in Carter County, and they agreed to sell it to her for $75,000. They held a campaign kickoff luncheon on Aug. 4 and raised the money needed by Aug. 30.
In September, the house was purchased and renovations began. Twenty-three Elizabethton and Johnson City firefighters demolished the house down to its studs, and Mitch Cox Companies remodeled it for free. Keller Williams Realty took care of landscaping, fencing and setting up a playground. Cannon’s Fine Home Furnishings donated and delivered furniture for the whole house.
The house opened on June 19, 2018, with a fully funded first year’s budget of $70,000 — $35,000 for operations and $35,000 for Paulson’s executive director position, 90 percent of which comes from individual and church donations. So many donations continue to pour in — everything from gift cards to groceries, clothes and supplies — that Paulson said they haven’t had to use any money in the operating budget.
“The whole community just kind of lost their minds and said, ‘We’re going to do this for these children,’” Paulson said.
Since then, more than 100 kids have been helped by Isaiah 117 House.
Paulson said she’s heard from DCS caseworkers that the organization makes their jobs easier because they can focus on paperwork and finding foster homes for the kids, while Isaiah House volunteers take care of and nurture the kids.
Co-workers Lisa Lundberg and Melissa Hall toured the house last fall and decided that day they were going to spearhead opening a house in Sullivan County. They, along with the rest of the Expansion Committee, have raised $40,000. They plan to hold a fundraising campaign kickoff soon.
“When you hear the story, there’s no way you can just say, ‘That’s good. Way to go.’ And walk away,” Lundberg said. “You have to step up and say, ‘OK, let’s just make this happen.’”
Gena Frye, Children’s Advocacy Center of Sullivan County’s executive director, and Katie Johnson, coordinated community response specialist at Branch House Family Justice Center, said they’re excited about Isaiah 117 House’s expansion into the county because they believe it will benefit the children they help and be a great resource for the county.
Johnson and Paulson said the two nonprofit organizations hope to become partners to work together to improve the care of children in the county that come to them for help. Johnson said she thinks Isaiah 117 House’s presence in Sullivan County will aid in Branch House’s work to alleviate adverse childhood experiences, such as trauma from abuse and neglect or witnessing domestic violence, to prevent those children from becoming abusive themselves later in life.
Paulson said the number of children taken out of their homes by DCS in each county of the Northeast Region of Tennessee, which encompasses Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties, has risen by about 20 percent each year over the past few years, and most are removed because of drugs in the homes.
She added that she knows the kids she and her 40 volunteers have helped feel safe and loved at Isaiah 117 House because many, especially the older kids, don’t want to leave. Often, they open up more when telling their stories to caseworkers at the house than they would at DCS offices.
One of those volunteers, Jody Hayes, worked to help adults through drug and alcohol rehabilitation for 30 years. Now that she’s retired, she spends her time with kids at Isaiah 117 House.
“I feel like God’s hand is on everything here,” Hayes said. “I’m doing one of the things God wanted me to do when I retired. I just love on them [kids] and make them feel like they’re not being judged. It’s not their fault they’ve been removed [from their homes].”
The house is set up like an ordinary home with two rooms of usual interest to children — the living room with a TV, couch, video game systems and toys, and two bedrooms — one for boys and one for girls — with more toys and beds.
Working to expand
Lundberg, Hall and their committee are looking at land in Sullivan County on which to build a house and have narrowed the possibilities to three. All three are within 10 minutes of the Blountville DCS office.
The nonprofit is also working to expand into Greene and Washington counties. So far, $30,000 has been raised for the Greene County project, and land has been donated. A house has been donated in Washington County that will be renovated and opened as an Isaiah 117 House for that county.
Paulson said her goal every time a new house opens is for the organization to provide any remaining funding for the first year’s budget, if it hasn’t been raised.
Paulson said officials in Anderson, Blount, Bradley, Monroe, Rutherford, and Union counties in Tennessee and in Evansville, Indiana, have contacted her because they’re interested in working with Isaiah 117 House to open houses in their localities.
“The need is great, and these children do deserve better than a cubicle or a conference room,” Paulson said. “They deserve so much better than what they’re receiving, and that’s what we want to provide. … Now that we’ve seen that not only is this very doable, but it works — this model works — we can’t stop in one county.”