kerri sowell

Kerri Sowell remembers fondly when Jonah’s Journey was in its beginning stages. As a trusted nurse, she was called to help Jonah when he had a cough.

After that moment, Kerri began fielding more phone calls with questions from caregivers and birthmothers. When Jonah’s Journey officially launched in 2008, Kerri fondly remembers sitting in a small room of passionate people, as part of the initial board of directors.

Today, Kerri holds classes every other month where she teaches Jonah’s Journey caregivers first aid and CPR.

“Jonah’s Journey is such an amazing ministry,” Kerri said. “It touches so many people. The child. The mother. The caregivers. And beyond that, it touches extended families, churches and schools.”

Kerri began her nursing career 36 years ago and has since worked in hospitals, clinics, and schools. She’s currently a charge nurse with Sumter County Schools.

“It’s truly where I was called to be early in my life,” said Kerri. “The life of a nurse is to always be learning, loving, and teaching.”

Jonah’s Journey continues to capture Kerri’s heart whenever she thinks about all the people involved.

“Christ calls us to care for orphans and widows – these children need God’s love,” she said. “We can fill this need because it’s the easiest one to fill, it’s just love.”

The need for caregivers is ongoing for Jonah’s Journey, but just like Kerri, people who are not called to caregiving can join the ministry and mission. Ideas include gathering supplies for caregivers, training as a relief caregiver, or providing support for birthmothers released from prison. Contact us for more information on making their journey yours.

Nashville Housing Market

For homeowners in Nashville, Tennessee, the current housing market offers an incredible return on their investment. For mothers in Nashville who placed a child with Jonah’s Journey while they completed a prison sentence, the market offers a major barrier to creating a stable life with their child.

In 2017, Zillow ranked Nashville as the #1 housing market in the U.S. and as having the third highest increase in home appreciation in the nation’s largest markets. The increase in home value has left affordable homes hard to find. For instance, the average rent for a two bedroom apartment soared to $1450 in April 2018, a 65% increase since 2011. Thirty percent of Nashville residents have a household income of $35,000 per year, and 45% of those living in poverty are single mothers with children under 5 years old.

In addition to facing low availability of rental properties, mothers who place their child with Jonah’s Journey may also face difficulty securing a property with landlords. Fair housing standards prevent landlords from discriminating against renters because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability. However, criminal background is not a protected class and many landlords and other tenants simply don’t want people with a criminal record living next door.

Statistics show that if a person finds work and housing shortly after being released from prison, the recidivism rate decreases significantly. Stability and support is key to stopping the cycle of repeat offenders.

The Jonah’s Journey mission centers around caring for the infants of women who are incarcerated. For most of those infants, their best interest is served by having a healthy, stable mother who can support herself after she’s released from prison.

Caregivers begin planning for reunification shortly after a baby is placed in their care. Initial discussions revolve around what resources and support systems the mother will need once she is released. As the release date draws near, they will often assist her in applying for transitional housing and searching for job opportunities.

Even with help from caregivers, finding housing is difficult in the current market. As Jonah’s Journey continues to talk about the need for caregivers to foster infants whose mothers are incarcerated, we also talk about the end-goal of reunification to give mothers and babies a fresh start.

As a Jonah’s Journey supporter, you can help by sharing information about our program with your church, community groups and work places. We need businesses willing to offer jobs to women with a criminal record and little employment background, and landlords willing to rent to women desperate to change their lives.

The reward for being part of this ministry might just be seeing the story change for an entire family and ultimately, helping to stop the generational cycle of incarceration.

criminal record

The majority of Americans skim over the little black box on employment applications that asks applicants to mark if they have a criminal history. For the nearly one-third of Americans with a criminal record, however, this one question causes hesitation.

For a woman anticipating release from the Tennessee Prison for Women and reunification with the infant she placed with Jonah’s Journey, the stakes when answering that question can be high.

Securing employment after release reduces concerns about other needs such as housing, food and child care, which makes this one of the most important pieces of the puzzle to reducing recidivism.

A 2015 study by the Manhattan Institute found a 20% reduction in return to crime by nonviolent offenders when they find employment soon after their release from prison. At Jonah’s Journey, we’ve experienced the benefits that a strong release plan can have on the life of a mother and her child. As soon as a child is placed with Jonah’s Journey, caregivers start discussions with birthmothers about their plans after release in order to give them the best chance at a fresh start.

The Good News

Until just two months ago, in April 2018, 110 careers in Tennessee required licensing by a state board. Many of those licenses gated careers in blue collar jobs such as cosmetology and manual labor positions. Those state boards could deny a license because a person had a criminal record.

A recent bill passed in both the Tennessee Senate and House of Representatives that requires state boards to assess whether the criminal offense directly relates to the license the person is seeking before the board denies a request. The bill opens a flood of new careers to those with a criminal past.

The bill that passed in April follows a bill from two years ago that effectively “banned the box” for state employers, meaning state entities cannot request information about an applicant’s criminal history until later in the interview process. This move, echoed in states around the country, encourages state employers to take time to consider an applicant and assess whether their criminal history would actually impact the job duties for which they applied.

Importance of Support

Not all women recently released have the skills necessary to receive licensing in any particular field and many have little support to help them find a job or obtain those skills. Even with the progress made, many women face battles to find employment to support them and their family.

Just over a year ago, a birthmother who placed her infant with Jonah’s Journey found a job soon after her release from prison. With help from Jonah’s Journey, she was prepared to reunite with her child except her new job required weekend work, when most daycare facilities are closed.

When Jonah’s Journey relief caregivers John and Rosie McClurken heard about her need, they stepped in to provide weekend childcare when needed. (include hyperlink to McClurken’s blog article)

Looking ahead

Social workers and caregivers with Jonah’s Journey spend months and sometimes years getting to know the women who place children in our care. They spend countless hours praying for their success upon release and then back up those prayers with assistance finding jobs, childcare and housing.

Women who place a child with Jonah’s Journey do so in the best interest of their child. Their goal upon release is to create a stable home where they can resume full-time parenting. Assisting the birthmothers of children in our program with finding employment after their release increases her chances at success, and even more so, brings that family one step closer to ending the cycle of incarceration.

respite caregiver

Rosie McClurkan laughs as she talks about the disparity between her long-time career as an auditor for the Tennessee Department of Revenue and her weekend work as a respite caregiver for Jonah’s Journey. Despite the vast differences, both areas prove to be fulfilling and fruitful.

“If I can do this, anybody can do this,” says Rosie who describes her work with Jonah’s Journey as warm and fulfilling.

Rosie’s first experience with foster care occurred when she was a child. Her parents served as foster parents and eventually adopted one of the children in their care. Rosie’s exposure to the desperate need for loving, caring foster homes spurred her and her husband, John, to search for ways to be involved in ministry serving foster children. Full-time jobs and lengthy commutes into Nashville keep the McClurkans away from home for twelve hours a day most days of the week.  “We knew we couldn’t do full time caregiver work, but still felt a calling.” says Rosie.

The McClurkans attend Long Hollow Baptist Church in Nashville where Jonah’s Journey originated and were familiar with the program. Their daughter-in-law worked with the ministry for several years as well.  “We inquired and learned about respite care.”

The McClurkans originally planned to offer respite care for full-time caregivers when they went on vacation, fell ill or otherwise needed a back-up caregiver. While they have filled this gap on occasion, they discovered another area of need within Jonah’s Journey: supporting mothers recently released from prison.

People with a prison record often find securing employment one of the biggest roadblocks to creating a more stable life for themselves and their families. Available jobs often require night and weekend work when most daycare facilities are closed.

After completing their certification last year, John and Rosie chose to help these mothers and children through respite care. They are profoundly impacted by the relationships formed in this unusual way. “We get to put hands and feet and arms and hugs to this in a real way,” says Rosie. “And not just for the kids but for the moms too.”

Every other Sunday the McClurkans care for a young boy for ten hours while his mother works. The resulting conversations between John, Rosie and the mother happen naturally and the McClurkans are humbled and delighted for the opportunity to share the love of God with her. She is grateful for their willingness to pour into her son’s life and to watch him free of charge while she works toward more stability and security for her family.

“The wonderful part of this commitment is we’ve been able to take him to church with us every Sunday we’ve had him,” says Rosie. The little boy’s favorite Sundays are when the weather is nice enough to walk to church. They talk about the flowers and birds and everything else they see along the way. When the weather is bad they listen to Bible songs in the car on the way to church.

“You get so much more out of it than you receive,” says Rosie. “It allows us to be the hands and feet of Jesus, reaching those who may not have ever experienced His love.”

Rosie boasts about the support of Jonah’s Journey staff. “They set you up for success. Their love, care and concern for the mothers and babies they support is amazing. They will answer any question you have with a smile and love. They are the most loving and caring souls I’ve ever met.”

Rosie has two simple words for people considering becoming a caregiver: Start today.

Big Payback

The Big Payback annual giving day is returning on Wednesday, May 2, and Jonah’s Journey is excited to take part in this monumental event.

The Big Payback, hosted by The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, is a community-wide giving day that celebrates Middle Tennessee’s spirit of generosity and supports the life-changing work of area nonprofits.

Kicking off at midnight on Wednesday, May 2, the 24-hour online giving day helps organizations, like Jonah’s Journey, raise much-needed funds and bring awareness to pressing needs in our community.

Gifts made to participating organizations during The Big Payback are amplified by incentives and awards and may help us qualify for special prizes and bonuses throughout the day.

Since its inception in 2014, Middle Tennessee’s annual day of giving has raised more than $9.3 million for nearly 1,000 area nonprofits, including schools and religious institutions. Participating organizations have received gifts from 18,806 NEW donors we may have not otherwise reached.

We hope you’ll support Jonah’s Journey and our mission to provide Christian foster care to children of women who are incarcerated on Wednesday, May 2 during The Big Payback.

For more information, contact us or visit www.TheBigPayback.org. Thank YOU for your support!

Just as every mother’s path to Jonah’s Journey is different, so is her path when her incarceration ends. Many women leave incarceration with nothing at all – no clothes, home, money, job, or support system. With help from Jonah’s Journey, she will have her most basic needs met, love and support from a team, and a plan for her next steps. Caring for children of women who are incarcerated and restoring a healthy relationship between the child and mother is the core mission at Jonah’s Journey.

Jonah’s Journey caregivers begin preparing for reunification as soon as the child is placed in their care. They talk to the mothers of the children in their care about plans after release and what resources she will need. They often assist her in applying for transitional housing and discussing job opportunities.

Mothers with access to resources and support systems outside of the program often reunite with their children immediately upon release from prison. Many of the mothers served are incarcerated outside of their home community. They place their child with Jonah’s Journey to increase their ability to see and bond with their child during incarceration through regular visits. If they return to their home community after incarceration and are supported, they will often reunite immediately after release.

Other mothers may enter a transitional program that may or may not allow her to bring her children. The children of these mothers can often continue to live with their Jonah’s Journey caregiver until the mother completes the program and is ready to live independently with her child.

While some mothers are ready to reunite immediately after release, others prefer to have secured a job and have help with childcare before reunification. Jonah’s Journey caregivers encourage each mother to choose a process and timeframe that allows for a healthy reunification for both mother and child.

Adjusting to life outside of prison requires time and support, especially if a woman has been incarcerated for several years. Even after children are reunified with their mothers, Jonah’s Journey caregivers often remain a part of their lives. Some mothers may never need Jonah’s Journey assistance again, while other mothers call on their Jonah’s Journey family for support off and on for many years.

The commitment our caregivers make to both mother and child is intended to be available for as long as it is needed.

Continued support and encouragement from a stable community often -makes the difference between women who rebuild their lives and those who find themselves incarcerated again. Jonah’s Journey wants to give the children in its care the best start possible to their lives, and to give mothers the support they need for a successful restart. To make this kind of an impact, Jonah’s Journey needs additional caregivers willing to bring an infant into their home and offer encouragement to the child’s mother. If you are interested in answering the call to become a Jonah’s Journey caregiver, request more information here.

If you do a quick internet search of “opioid use and foster care crisis,” you’ll find page after page of articles lamenting the children whose families and safety have become casualties of the rise in opioid addiction that has recently been declared a national crisis.

Startling statistics detail the increased need for foster care corresponding with the increase in opioid addiction, overdose and death. The number of U.S. children in foster care continues to rise, and the most recently released data shows 34% of children that are removed from their home are removed because of a parent’s drug abuse. Tennessee has seen rising numbers of deaths due to overdose, and a huge surge of parental right terminations due to maternal drug use. Here in Middle Tennessee, reports show more than 3 times the national average of babies born addicted.

It can be easy to cast stones, but the reality is that many opiate addictions begin with prescribed painkillers that carry highly addictive properties. When the prescription is no longer an option, individuals may turn to heroin or other drugs available on the street. As addiction takes hold, individuals often withdraw from family and friends and lose interest in the life that once sustained them. Children in these homes are often surrendered to state foster care when parents are arrested and incarcerated, or even seek rehabilitation.

While these sobering statistics may seem insurmountable, your support for Jonah’s Journey actually helps meet the needs of children affected by this crisis. When a mother or a pregnant woman in the greater Nashville area is incarcerated (often due to opioid use) she often has the option to voluntarily place her child with Jonah’s Journey. When she makes that decision, she then begins to develop a relationship with the family who will care for her child as their own until she is released. These families demonstrate the unconditional love of Christ by visiting her in prison, and helping her to maintain a healthy relationship with her child.

Jonah’s Journey knows that reintegration into a healthy community is one of the most important factors in preventing a mother’s recidivism or relapse. To help give these women the best chance at becoming a successful parent and productive member of society, relationships are a top priority for us. Often when a mother is released, her Jonah’s Journey family picks her up from the prison and helps her find safe, appropriate housing for her reunified family, providing encouragement as she gets back on her feet. These families continue to provide care for her child when she goes for job interviews or attends recovery meetings, and function as an extended family she can call on in moments of need.

Through unconditional love and compassion, Jonah’s Journey is making an impact on families who have become victims of the opioid crisis. When you give to Jonah’s Journey, you become a part of the solution. Ending the opioid epidemic and reversing the increase in children in foster care won’t happen overnight. But here at Jonah’s Journey we know that we can create positive change for families here in Tennessee. Will you join us?

Meet Allyson Greene, Jonah’s Journey Caseworker.

Allyson officially joined the Jonah’s Journey staff in 2014, but Jonah’s Journey has been a part of her own story for many years.  When she was a teen, her family became among the first to get involved with the ministry as voluntary caregivers to children in need. As such, she has a unique perspective on the organization and a passion for the mission that’s personal in every way. She currently lives in Cookeville with her husband of 2.5 years, Tyler. We’re so grateful for her enthusiastic addition to the Jonah’s Journey family.

What brought her to Jonah’s Journey:

I’ve known for most of my life that I wanted to work with children, and probably children from hard places, so when the time came to do my college internship for my degree in Child Development and Family Relations, I really planned to look somewhere other than Jonah’s Journey, since I already had experience with it through my family’s involvement. Fortunately, all of my other plans fell through, and when I started doing my internship at Jonah’s Journey I realized I loved it. The Lord just had it worked out perfectly– I graduated from college on Saturday and started working full time for JJ on the next Monday.

What makes her perfect for the job:

Since my parents were caregivers through Jonah’s Journey, I have experienced that side of the journey.  My parents began when I was a senior in high school and we developed such a strong relationship with the birth mom. I went almost every week to visit her in prison and even wrote letters to her after I went to college.  I remember asking my mom, “How are we going to give him back?” and she would tell me over and over, “He’s not ours, and he never will be ours. He’s the Lord’s.” I can empathize really well with the caregiver families in thinking “I love this child, and therefore I love his or her mother” even when it’s hard to face the reality of the difficult situations.

Her favorite thing about Jonah’s Journey:

I love so many things about Jonah’s Journey! I guess my FAVORITE thing- I just love the whole concept of it. I love how it is the Gospel. I love how we’re getting to love everyone- children, birth mommas who have been written off by so many people…we’re just loving people. We all go through times when we’re hurting and we all need someone to love us, and to see this childlike faith coming about in these women when they realize they can finally trust somebody. I love seeing moms brag on caregivers when those caregivers love them well. Moms know that no matter what, we’re still there for them.

On how the community can be involved:

Obviously our biggest need always is caregivers, and even respite caregivers. One need I see that is becoming very common is some people from the Church to be willing to help find housing solutions for our moms. We have women that are working so hard to find housing, but the market in Nashville right now is tough. Often women are released from prison and just have nowhere to go, so having people rally behind the family with the child and that momma to help meet needs and show love is so important. The more people to love them, the better. And of course prayer- Jonah’s Journey is something that’s great, so Satan is out to steal, kill, and destroy every day. We need people praying on behalf of these children and moms and birth families and caregivers.

To anyone thinking of becoming a Jonah’s Journey caregiver:

Just do it. Don’t worry too much about all the logistics. If you sit and think on it forever, you’ll back out. There are a lot of unknowns. The potential of heartbreak or sadness is there, but the relationship with the moms and children is simply worth it. I don’t know any family who would say “I wish we hadn’t done that.”
To those who wonder how their children will cope, I’d just say that the reason I have such a heart for this is because it was modeled to me in my home.  I’m so thankful for my family letting me out of that “bubble” of perceived safety. I’m glad they brought this into my world as a teen. There were times mom and dad would miss a basketball game or a school event, but it was worth it. Don’t be afraid to include your children in this ministry. It’s going to affect your kids, but not in the way you think. They’re going to be world changers one day because this kind of sacrificial love seems natural to them. It affects them in the best type of way. And I personally can say that it’s so sweet to watch the kids learn to love someone. Jonah’s Journey is a part of the mission field that your whole family can participate in.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

You’ve no doubt heard or perhaps even sung the lyrics of this Christmas carol.  When I think about those words, I must admit that often, even in the heart of the Christmas season, it is far too easy to dismay. The good news of Christ’s birth sometimes gets overlooked in the chaos of running from party to party, attending recitals, shopping for gifts, and planning for travel. For a foster parent, there’s the added element of acclimating a new child to your family’s traditions, and navigating the emotions that come with that child being separated from his or her loved ones during the holidays. Tidings of comfort and joy can seem nothing more than words in a song.

At Jonah’s Journey, we know that part of the role we play in serving children and mothers in need is equipping the caregiver families who provide for these children.  That’s why each December, we set aside an evening dedicated to encouraging and thanking our caregiver families.  This year, a team of 36 volunteers came together to make the evening possible, handling everything from decorations and music to childcare and serving dinner.

Jonah’s Journey caregiver families gathered together at the Davis Barn (also known as the Upper Room) to enjoy a time of fellowship and celebration. Children were invited to a party of their own at Restoring Hope, a nearby church who offered their space to host the 48 children in attendance. The kids’ party was staffed by 22 volunteers who designed an evening filled with games, crafts, movies, and of course dinner donated by Chick-fil-A.

Through the years, this event has become a special time for past and present Jonah’s Journey families to connect, no matter where they are in their experience with the ministry. Some families currently have a Jonah’s Journey child in their home, while others are now involved in offering continued encouragement and support to a mother and child who have been reunited. Still others gather as a part of the extended Jonah’s Journey family, though they no longer serve as caregivers. This time together serves as an opportunity to share their experiences and to encourage and pray for one another.

After a time of coffee and fellowship in the warm atmosphere of the Barn, caregivers enjoyed a wonderful meal provided by Kathy Dennis of Kathy’s Sugar and Spice Catering, including her famous white chocolate bread pudding.  Following the dinner together, Jay Strother, pastor of an area church, delivered an exhortation to caregivers, encouraging them in their journey. Strother reminded caregivers that everyday actions in service to others have eternal effects beyond what we can imagine, using the Biblical story of Ruth’s seemingly chance encounter into the field of Boaz to gather grain, which became a part of the story of the birth of Christ, generations later.

While it would be impossible to recognize all the individuals involved in making this event a much-needed time of fellowship and respite for caregivers (and a fun party for the children), we would like to offer thanks to the Strothers, the Crazy Love ladies who decorated, served and helped with the gifts provided for the caregiver families, the Davises, Rivergate Chick-fil-a, and to Jean Jennings and all the volunteers from Long Hollow Baptist who provided everything needed for the children’s party. Of course, we would be remiss not to recognize the hard work of Jonah’s Journey Director Susan Moffitt who provided the inspiration and much of the hard work behind this wonderful evening.

Thanks to these individuals, and the support of so many others, tidings of comfort and joy became so much more than song lyrics for families serving the women and children of Jonah’s Journey this holiday season.

Meet Christy Johnston, Jonah’s Journey Home Study Specialist.

Christy has been with Jonah’s Journey for 2.5 years.  Having grown up in the Nashville area, she loves being able to serve the community that she knows so well.  Christy resides in Goodlettsville with her husband of 15 years, John, and their son Graycen (10) and daughter Kara (7).  Christy actually studied criminal justice in college, so her road to Jonah’s Journey was not quite as obvious as some of our other staff, but we’re so glad she’s found her place in the Jonah’s Journey family.

What brought her to Jonah’s Journey:

I worked for the state of Tennessee in the department of children’s services for fifteen years, primarily with at-risk or delinquent teenagers. Through the years, I began to see the children of teens I’d worked with come through the system, repeating the same mistakes their parents had made. I was drawn to the ministry of Jonah’s Journey, because it seemed like a way to help stop that cycle of children repeating the mistakes of their parents.  Obviously, no mom is perfect, and everyone makes mistakes, but Jonah’s Journey provides such a strong support system for women whose children are placed with us. The faith-based environment of Jonah’s Journey was so awesome to me, and I love to see caregiver families openly sharing the gospel with the mothers of the children they care for.

What makes her perfect for the job:

While I do have the career experience needed for a home study specialist, I’d really say this job is perfect for me; the support system we have at Jonah’s Journey is just such a blessing.  Watching the caregivers be there for each other, carrying each other through the difficult times and rejoicing together in the good times, and to know that people really do care is just such a great environment. One thing I really enjoy is going out and talking to people about Jonah’s Journey, and just sharing the effects this ministry has on the mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and really the whole family of a child in our care.  It’s so great to watch caregivers pour into an entire family and share the love of Christ with them.

Her favorite thing about Jonah’s Journey:

I love seeing the support for each other between our staff and caregivers. I don’t see families as often as their caseworkers do, but the support is tangible, even through things like our Facebook page. Seeing the families come together to help each other and help the mothers of the children they care for is amazing. Whether it’s providing physical items, resources, or praying for each other, someone is always available.

On how the community can be involved:

I think the obvious answer is to become a caregiver, but we know that’s not for everyone. I love seeing the “empty nesters” get involved- retired schoolteachers, grandparents…we need everyone! One thing I’d love to see our community do is help offer resources for mothers who are being reunited with their children. So often these women are starting completely over, and don’t even have the basic necessities. Something as little as a gift basket with toiletries and basic household items can help give them the confidence they need to get back on their feet and be great moms to their children.

To anyone thinking of being a Jonah’s Journey caregiver:

Taking care of the child is the easy part, but Jonah’s Journey caregivers believe in showing compassion to that child’s mother as well. If you don’t have a heart for the biological family, things will be difficult. Our goal is reunification, but there aren’t fairytale endings in real life. When a mom is reunited with her child, she often still relies on the emotional support of Jonah’s Journey caregivers to help her through hard times and encourage her.  If you’re considering becoming a caregiver, you need that support from your community as well.  Attend an interest meeting or panel discussion and hear from our current caregivers about their experiences so your expectations are realistic. Reach out to everyone in your church, small group, or neighborhood and ask them to commit to praying for you, and providing respite care and emotional support on your journey. Having the emotional and physical support from other believers is so important.