COLUMBIA — The Stoll family has a full table for Christmas, with four biological children and six foster children home for the holidays.
The faces at their table have shifted a lot over the years. Since 2002, Lori and Barry Stoll have taken in at least 15 foster children. Currently, they have a biological son and five foster children, all siblings, living at home.
Hope Chest needs volunteers and is seeking donations of needed items on its Web site.
To help, go to the Hope Chest for Kids's Web site or call 881-7339.
"It’s a honor and a privilege to serve these kids and to help them be a family," Lori Stoll said. "That’s the reason we took in these five. They’re all siblings, and they need to be together."
She is a board member of Hope Chest for Kids, a mid-Missouri organization dedicated to helping foster families. During tough economic times, Hope Chest and the Boone County foster care system have their work cut out for them.
They are dealing with an increase in children, a decrease in foster families and almost the lowest reimbursement rates for foster parents in the nation. Missouri ranks 49 among the 50 states in what is paid for foster care.
The Stolls' five foster children are among 9,388 in Children's Division's custody across the state, up from 9,244 a year ago. These children are either in foster care or live in the home of a relative.
Missouri has 2,183 foster homes, excluding relatives' homes, down from 2,345 homes last year. Foster children are living in 1,481 of those homes.
Boone County has 166 children in foster care and 57 foster homes, compared to 72 last year.
The state did pass a 3 percent increase in reimbursement this year, which added $1 million in funding to the foster care system. Still, a recent study shows that Missouri falls short of recommended rates.
The 2007 study by Children's Rights calculated the cost of supporting a foster child in each state with food, shelter, clothing and school supplies.
For Missouri, the study recommended $627 for a 2-year-old, $719 for a 4-year-old and $788 for a 16-year-old.
Right now, the state's foster parents receive a base rate of $282 per month for children age 5 and under, $335 for children ages 6 to 12, and $372 for children older than 13.
Missouri would need to more than double its rates to follow the guidelines. By comparison, Kansas would need to increase rates by an average of 18 percent; Illinois, 78 percent; Oklahoma, 48 percent; and Iowa 46, percent.
The only state checking in worse than Missouri is Nebraska, which would need to increase rates by 136 percent. Nationally, states would need to increase rates by an average of 36 percent.
Missouri does provide an annual clothing allowance ranging from $250 to $480 per year, as well as incentive payments for children with behavioral, mental or medical issues.
"I’m very resourceful," Lori Stoll said. "I couldn’t do this unless I was. So I try to help other foster parents learn where to get stuff."
Hope Chest for Kids helps fill the financial gap for foster parents. It was founded in 2007 by parents who had both a biological daughter and a foster daughter graduating from high school at the same time. The family was strapped trying to meet the needs of both.
"We realized that there was very little assistance for families, and we knew there had to be others like us," said Suzie Forbis, one of Hope Chest's founders.
A staff of unpaid volunteers, all working from their homes, makes weekly food distributions to five neighboring counties, covers some educational costs and provides scholarships, as well as helps fund summer camps, musical programs, emergency placements and transitional housing.
Every Tuesday, Suzie Forbis and her husband, Ron, travel from Clark to the food bank in Columbia with a trailer — purchased through a grant from Boone Electric — to pick up food to take to the five counties each week.
"It lifts a lot of people up," Suzie Forbis said.
The "Gabriel's Song" music program provides foster children with an opportunity to own their own instrument as well as receive musical instruction.
Terrie Foltz, development director for Hope Chest, said it's important for foster children to have something that they can call their own. She said she will never forget the smile on a girl's face when she gave her a clarinet.
"That’s all the payment you need," Foltz said.
Last year, Hope Chest held a prom day of pampering for foster children at Foltz's home. Girls picked out a prom dress, and many went home with makeup products and gift certificates to get their hair or nails done.
"That child feels hope from that day forward," Foltz said. "It doesn’t matter what they’ve been through — all the hardships of having the neglect, of having alcoholic parents and being taken from them and being in a home that’s not your forever home.
"Saying, 'You know, you may have never heard this before, but we believe in you. We think you’re worth giving up a Saturday afternoon for you to come over and pick out a dress.'"
Like many organizations, Hope Chest has struggled financially this year. It is especially in need of money to offset the cost of gas used for food distributions, as well as funding for a center it hopes to own.
It would also like to purchase a facility where foster families can seek job training and tutoring for students over 18 who have aged out of the foster care system.
Lori Stoll believes it is especially important to keep in touch with foster children after they turn 18. A good way to do that is to provide them a place to stay for a few months until they can provide for themselves, she said.
"We’ve always had a vision for helping them feel like they're part of a family," Stoll said. "They’re not just dropped off the end of the world when they turn 18.
"They actually do have people out there that will continue to say 'We’re family. We’re going to continue to see you through stuff.'"