Feb. 12—After months of work and construction, the Grace & Joy House's Chatsworth facility is "fully functional and ready to start receiving kids," said co-founder Amanda Gillean.
Founded in Dalton in 2020, the original Grace & Joy House is a hospitality house that provides care and necessities to children as they prepare for placement in foster care. The organization also supports foster families throughout Whitfield and Murray counties while working with the state Division of Family & Children Services (DFCS).
In 2023, Gillean and her husband Robert realized the need for a similar facility in Murray County. They partnered with project coordinator Ron Johnson to remodel a long-abandoned residential home off of U.S. 76.
The Chatsworth facility is furnished much like the Grace & Joy House's Dalton location, including separate rooms for boys and girls, a living area, kitchen, dining area, bathroom, storage room and an office that doubles as a private sensory room. Hanging on the walls of the living area are paintings sharing positive messages painted by students from Chatsworth Elementary School.
The children are provided warm meals, clean clothes, toiletry items, toys, games and a bed to provide a "homey" experience.
What sets the Chatsworth facility apart from the Dalton location is the addition of a visitation wing, which includes a check-in lobby and two rooms where parents who are granted court-ordered supervised visitation can spend time with their child as part of the reunification process.
Amanda Gillean said her hope is that the new facility will bring awareness to the growing need in Murray County.
"We only have three foster families in Murray," she said. "And the number is up to 90 kids in custody. Not long ago, there were three foster families and 70 kids, so there's 20 more kids and still the same amount of families."
She said the main goal is to "spark more interest" in the foster care system and recruit more families.
"So that the kids from Murray County can actually stay in Murray County and not have to go all over the state," she said.
A large part of that involves making it more convenient for foster families and parents seeking reunification in Murray County.
"We're hoping that our visitation side will make it a lot easier for families that are trying to get their kids back and be reunified," she said. "Murray County is a big county and most of the time these families are already struggling. They might not have a good vehicle or gas money to drive from Dalton and back. It kind of sets them up for failure to make them have to drive back and forth and go that far each time given their situation."
Rae Shirah, a board member for the Grace & Joy House, said providing a visitation program at the Chatsworth facility will hopefully "take some of the burden off of the community" and remove any barriers.
"Our goal is to continue to be a support to our community and bring both the (community) and government, such as DFCS, together," Shirah said. "Our job is not only to support the children and the families in our communities, but to also build a stronger fostering system and support our Division of Family & Children Services, because that is a very difficult job."
A closer resource
Johnson said the beauty of the project involves knowing that a struggling part of the community can be helped.
"I've worked with agencies within Whitfield and Murray County for about 18 years and there aren't as many in Murray County, so it's very nice to have another resource over here that brings the location closer to people who will be utilizing it," he said. "Not having to drive into Dalton, it saves them a bunch of time. It's just huge to have some more resources close by in Murray County itself."
He said it has been "incredible" to see churches and volunteers in the county pitch in to help along the way.
"With any of these organizations and agencies, you have to have that local support," he said. "To have all of these volunteers in the Murray County area that are contributing and donating time, materials and financially, it's just a wonderful thing to see."
Gillean believes the new facility could be used more than the one in Dalton.
"Just because (Murray County) has so few foster families that it takes longer to place (children)," she said. "I think we will see a lot of faces, plus our visitation side is going to put a lot more traffic in here."
During an open house on Sunday, Feb. 4, for donors and volunteers in the community who helped provide work, materials and a helping hand to the project, Gillean presented a plaque to Johnson for spearheading the development.
"Ron has dedicated so much time to this house," Gillean said. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that this would not have been possible without him. He's done everything. We appreciate it more than we ever could express."
"I just want you to know that every child that will get to come through here and be served, and every family that can be reunited from this house, that you have a major part in that," she said, handing Johnson the plaque. "We're going to hang this in the house. It says, 'In appreciation to Ron Johnson. Your commitment, selflessness and countless hours have made the Chatsworth house a reality. We express our everlasting gratitude to you. May the Lord richly bless you always.'"
Surrounded by family members and friends, Johnson said being able to work on the house during the last year was "a pleasure."
"I'm anxious to get it in use and get the kids to start using it," he said. "It's a special place and I'm excited to have it in Murray County where everybody can make use out of it in this community. I'm just a small piece of the pie."
The whole piece, Shirah said, involves supporting those who might not have access to it and bringing people together "in a way that has exponential impact on our community."
"Our goal is to be the hands and feet of Jesus for people, especially for children and families who are in a place of trauma," she said. "Because it is. It's trauma for the children who are taken away and it's trauma for the families that have the children removed. So, if we can offer a safe place for kids to take a breath while giving the case workers some support, that's how we feel. Our heart is to just show up in a way that is healthy and life-changing. That's either through reunification or through fostering."