When Michelle Prickett was a foster child growing up, she had to visit her biological mother in a courthouse. She said she thinks the unwelcoming, officious space was one reason her mom eventually gave her up.
“Like so many biological parents, all the blocks were stacked against them,” said Prickett, now the executive director for Kids in Need of McHenry County. “My mom said it was too hard with five kids, so I fell off. We don’t want that to happen with kids our organization helps.”
Kids in Need of McHenry County opened a family visitation and resource home one year ago, the first facility of its kind in McHenry County, and this week the home at 55 E. Crystal Lake Ave. underwent a major renovation.
The goal is to provide a space where foster children can meet and connect with their biological parents in a setting more conducive to building relationships than a courthouse or library, Prickett said.
Almost 50 families living in Kane, Lake and McHenry counties have spent more than 2,000 hours collectively in the visitation home since it opened last year, said Amber Rakozcy, the owner and director of ROAN Solutions, which provides the services within the home.
“Some families have never eaten with their kids before or never made a meal with them,” Prickett said. “This house provides a safe atmosphere, a normal environment.”
The renovation is part of a partnership between Kids in Need and the home construction company Lennar, which chose the daylong project for its annual Day of Caring event.
“This is one of the most rewarding projects we’ve ever done,” said Lennar’s Chicago division president, Chris Gillen. “The whole company got behind it.”
Lennar’s Focus Acts of Caring committee members were looking to organize some kind of community-building event, and several Crystal Lake-area Lennar employees approached them in March about the Kids in Need home, Gillen said.
That included Kari Moritz, vice president of sales and marketing, and Sean Burke, vice president of purchasing.
“I thought this would be great opportunity to continue work we’ve done in the past like Stuff the Duffel,” Moritz said, referring to a donation campaign by Second Bridge, which is now a part of Kids in Need, to collect goods for foster children.
The fundraiser was created after the death of AJ Freund, a 5-year-old killed by his parents in Crystal Lake in 2019. Moritz said she was heavily affected by that incident and was happy to contribute in this week’s partnership.
“This is a fantastic event, going right on target,” Burke said Friday afternoon. “This has definitely exceeded expectations.”
Lennar and partners raised more than $70,000 in cash or material donations for the renovation, Gillen said. About 50 associates with Lennar and another 20 from contracting partners spent Friday painting, landscaping and cleaning the home.
Keller Williams Realty, which did some prep work Thursday, also contributed $15,000 for the home renovations, Prickett said.
Some new features will include a newly paved and regraded driveway and back parking space, new landscaping and plants in front, and a new play area outside. Various rooms and cabinets were repainted, the plumbing was reconfigured, and some new couches were donated.
The home includes a variety of spaces where parents can have supervised visits with their children and learn skills such as cooking and bathing. Different rooms are designed for different age groups, including a game room for older kids and larger spaces for families visiting multiple children who may live in different foster homes, Prickett said.
Therapists and others work with parents to manage anxiety levels as they learn to safely and successfully care for their kids, Rakoczy said.
The goal of Kids in Need and the home is to find a permanent solution for the children affected, whether that’s being reunited with their biological parents or finding a permanent foster home, Prickett and Rakoczy said.
Even in the latter case, the transition home can provide a space where kids and their biological parents can establish a healthy relationship or visit each other a few times a year, Rakoczy said.
“The truth is that parents who come to our doors love their kids fiercely,” Rakoczy said. “They may not have the skills for parenting or have experienced generational patterns of trauma or violence. Parents make choices. The community may not always condone those decisions or support them, but maybe they can once we understand where these people are coming from.”
Although Rakoczy said she feels ROAN and Kids in Need see reconnection “wins” daily, one of her favorite success stories involves the reuniting of a 2-year-old with their father, who previously did know he had a child.
Prickett said she and her husband adopted four foster children who meet with their aunt, grandmother, mother and younger sister.
One of the foster siblings, Prickett said, told her that it was “the best day of her life” when she was able to have a meal and play games with the Pricketts and her biological family, watching them get along and, as a result, feeling more comfortable about the entire situation.
“You hear stories of kids walking around with suitcases,” Prickett said. “There’s no chance for bonding or cooking in offices. This represents a different approach to working with families. They get to make memories here.”
Kids in Need expected families to be able to use the house again as soon as Saturday, Rakoczy said Friday, noting that normally the home is open seven days a week.
“Parents are always surprised when they first come here,” Rakoczy said. “They’re used to office settings or a library or McDonald’s. I think when they come in here this week, they’re going to be really surprised by the new decor and the backyard play set.”