COLUMBUS, Ohio – Even though it was a moment Michele Murphy had prepared for extensively - she'd had her foster care license for more than 18 months - she still panicked when she received her first placement in February.

"I thought I had everything ready, but I had a breakdown - all the nervousness about whether I could provide the best care for this little boy," said Murphy, 44, a single foster parent living in Columbus.

She realized that she had no idea what a 9-year-old boy liked nor how she'd find the time to get all his school supplies, clothes and bedding in less than 48 hours.

Thankfully, she knew someone who could help.

Murphy reached out to Maya Ward and Alicia's Closet, the nonprofit group that Ward founded in 2018 to help foster parents in positions exactly like Murphy's. The organization provides support, through emergency supplies and camaraderie, to area foster families.

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A day later Ward — a foster parent and adoptive mother in Reynoldsburg, Ohio — stopped by to drop off clothes, socks, underwear, a new blanket, kids shampoo and other necessities. She also came with a Minecraft backpack.

"She not only brought the necessities he needed, but she brought what he liked," Murphy said.

Those bags of clothes and goodies helped make a very difficult transition easier for the new foster mom and child. Even more importantly, however, was the mental and emotional support Murphy said she felt connecting with Ward and attending the support group for foster parents that Alicia's Closet also offers.

"She reaffirmed that everything was going to be OK - that I had the support of them even if I didn't know them," Murphy said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I told her about my fears. Who is he going to play with?

"Having someone tell me what I'm going through is normal and that I could call them at any time and that other people had done it and survived, that was amazing."

Maya Ward keeps all sorts of items that new foster parents might need in her home. (Barbara J. Perenic/The Columbus Dispatch/TNS)
Maya Ward keeps all sorts of items that new foster parents might need in her home. (Barbara J. Perenic/The Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

What began as a way to get foster parents with new placements some clothes that fit the children and toys to help ease the transition has blossomed into so much more, explained Ward, 41, who allows parents and kids to "shop" racks in her living room and also drops items off at people's homes.

"Foster parents come in here and say, 'You're the first foster parent I've met,'" Ward said. "Or they come in and they break down. They're not getting the support they need. I tell them, 'Hey, sit down. Your kid can play with my kids.' People need to connect ... with people who understand the unique challenges of this life."

Even though she is the daughter of a social worker, Ward said she had no idea about the challenges faced by foster parents until she and her husband, Eric, decided to foster in 2017. They adopted their children, Alicia, 11 — the namesake of the nonprofit — and EJ, 10, in 2018 and currently have a toddler boy under their care.

While foster families do make preparations, most placements are emergency, she said, with only a few hours' notice. This doesn't allow parents, especially those who are single, much time to head to the store. Many families accept children of all ages, making it difficult to have clothes in all sorts of sizes.

Plus, payments from the government don't typically show up until about a month after placement, Ward said.

She also serves kinship caregivers, which receive little, if any, financial support, and reunified families to help them get back on their feet.

In 2020, Alicia's Closet served 400 families

"It was 10 p.m. at night and a baby needed formula - those are the situations that we really focus on," said Ward, whose inventory comes from donations. "With car seats, you're given twins and you only have one. A lot have large sibling groups, and even if you do have some stuff, it's not enough."

Alicia's Closet "has been a wonderful" program for area foster parents, said Tatyana Shats, a licensed social worker with the foster agency National Youth Advocate Program, which is based in Columbus.

Shats said most children come into the foster system with nothing and with little notice so the items, not to mention the emotional support, that Ward offers are important in helping the foster homes provide the best environment for these children.

"We get referrals from Children's Services 24/7," Shats said. "We can call parents any day or night or weekend and tell them, 'We have a kid we think you could give a good home to.' Then they're getting a new placement in three hours."

She knows many foster parents who have benefited from Alicia's Closet.

"I really love the work that Maya and Alicia's Closet are doing," Shats said. "Her vision has grown and she's become an established resource for our foster parents."

Megan Modene recalled "freaking out" when a 7-year-old boy arrived on her doorstep around midnight in February 2020.

"He was out of the age range I'd had - I usually take girls who are younger," Modene, of Columbus, said. "His pajamas were at least two sizes two small and looked like flood pants, and he had on dirty snow boots. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I have nothing in his size.'"

That's when she reached out to Ward.

Modene, who was single at the time but now has a partner, put the boy to sleep in one of her old T-shirts but awoke the next day to find a bag of stuff from Ward and volunteers on her porch.

Another time she took care of two babies who both needed car seats, but she only had one.

She said it's instances like that where Ward's work has become a lifesaver - and a lifeline - for area foster families. She can't stress enough how important organizations like Alicia's Closet are to helping these children succeed despite the circumstances.

"You're bringing new kids into a home, and it's such a transition without having nine months to prepare for a new child," Modene said. "You have 15 minutes. This just helps you to settle in without having to run to the store."

Instead, parents such as Modene can focus on reading to, cuddling with or playing with a child, which are all important to help create a bond and begin healing.

Ward said connecting families together in support of these children is Alicia's Closet's greatest mission, which is why she added the weekly support group and online forums.

While she understands the immediate impact she has on the families she serves, she didn't anticipate the affect it would have on her own.

"People will ask Alicia, 'Is this your closet?' and she's able to share some of her story," Ward said. "In my own kids' healing, that's a really cool thing."

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