LINDENHURST – After her mother died, Mechelle Casey knew she wanted to do more as a foster care manager.
She thought of the words her mother, Carolyn Hollins, had told her on a voicemail the day before she died.
“She told me to drink water because the body needs to be replenished,” Casey remembered. “I reflected on those words my mom said, ‘Drink water, Mechelle.’ I ended up taking those words and opening up a center that provides a safe place for foster children to reunite and connect with parents.”
That center, DrinkWater Family Services, opened May 8, 2021, at 616 Bridgeport Terrace, Unit F, in Lindenhurst. This past weekend, Casey celebrated the center’s one-year anniversary as well as Foster Care Awareness Month during a fundraising event.
Along with offering a space for families to connect, visit and exchange children, DrinkWater Family Services (drinkwaterfs.org) provides a respite area for both adults and children, with a playroom for younger children and a living-room type area for older children to play video games, read books and relax.
“Sometimes, the parents don’t know how to engage with their children,” Casey said.
As a case manager, she once was told not to lead or guide parents, she said, but she has taken a different approach.
“How do we not tell a parent what to do when we’re trying to get their children back to them? I help them and lead them on what to say and what to do,” she said.
Casey is expanding the nonprofit organization into a nearby unit to provide educational workshops, parenting classes, dietary support and mental health resources for families. Classes will be led by volunteers who are experts in their respective fields.
“My approach to this whole system is just to be more holistic with it,” Casey said.
The center’s vision to “sustain and rejuvenate the lives of families in need” is reflected in its name, which “comes from everyone’s need for life-giving water found through the word of God.”
Casey envisions workshops on topics such as how to prepare healthy meals and the importance of eating meals together, as well as those focusing on interracial families. Families not only can find community, but also practical resources.
“The challenges we find is that when white parents adopt Black children, they have issues with hair, keeping up the hair or knowing how to moisturize and skin care,” she said. “We’ll be able to have professionals come in to help the parents go through that process.”
The center grew out of Casey’s experience as a caseworker.
Oftentimes, caseworkers don’t really have a neutral place to bring children in foster care to connect with parents as part of visitation, she said. They end up meeting in fast-food parking lots or parks.
Spaces also are needed for drop-offs in situations when custodial and noncustodial parents aren’t allowed to be within a certain distance of one another.
The center provides a welcoming space for children to be dropped off with a caseworker and later picked up by a parent, as well as an area for children in foster care to visit or reunite with biological parents.
“We would have benefited from it if it would have been open when we were going through the process,” said Amanda Colletti of Antioch, who fostered and later adopted three children with her husband, Steve. Their children are now 8, 7 and 6.
Colletti connected with Casey while seeking out resources for interracial adoptive families.
“I was just seeking some community for my kids as a white parent raising Black kids,” Colletti said. “I wanted a community where they see people who look like them and form friends and have an extended family.”
As she and her husband were going through the foster care process, Colletti said she often met at fast-food play places as part of court-mandated visitations with older siblings and biological parents. If they met at a park and it rained, they’d try to connect with windows rolled down in parking lots, she said.
“It’s just such a big deal to have something like DrinkWater,” she said. “It’s a huge support for families to have a neutral space to meet for visitations. This would have helped us hugely across the board.”