If Laura Caldwell somehow could reunite all children with their estranged parents and have them live happy, healthy lives, she would do it in a single heartbeat.
Caldwell and her husband, C.R. Caldwell, have started the New Start for Children & Families, a nonprofit is located at 4411 Alma Hwy. between Van Buren and Alma. The single-story, 1,300-square-foot house serves as a safe haven for foster children and their families who live in Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Scott, Yell and Johnson counties.
Open 24 hours a day, the home allows parents to reunite with their children to visit, eat and be with each other while under the supervision of representatives from the Department of Human Services, said Laura Caldwell, who serves as director for home.
"We knew Crawford County needed a place for these children," she said. "We originally thought we would see 10 to 15 kids, but we had 178 kids come through here in June — we're talking children from birth all the way up to teenagers — and we're looking to have quite a bit of kids for the month of July.
"There are over 1,200 foster kids in our area, which makes our area have the biggest number of foster children in the state," added Caldwell, who is a therapist for Bost Human Services, operates a private practice and works with The Call, a local organization that strives to reunite children with their families. "For some reason, there is such a big drug problem for so many individuals in our area. That is why we see so many children in foster care in this region. It's sad."
Those area parents who struggle with addictions usually are grappling with methamphetamine, or meth, although other types drugs and alcohol also can play a part in the parents' neglect and abuse of their children, she said. Caldwell said she hopes New Start for Children & Families and DHS representatives can help families "heal" so that children can live in safety with their parents and other relatives.
"Reunification is the goal of New Start for Children & Families," she said. "We are here to hopefully see family reunification, and we are here for family visits with the children, as well."
The New Start house features a playroom for children and can be used as a place for overnight stay for children until a new foster home is found, Caldwell said. Each child is given a backpack that includes toothpaste, a toothbrush, toiletry items, a coloring book with crayons, a Bible, a reading book, a stuffed animal, a pillow, a blanket and more.
"You know, sometimes a child just needs a bath, which is something most people take for granted," Laura Caldwell said. "This is place where they can take a bath and feel better.
"And we are proud to say that the New Start house is the only house in the state that is certified o treat children with head lice," she added. "DHS can come into the New Start home and treat these children who have head lice."
Debbie Pippin, Crawford County supervisor for DHS, said the house is a safe place that provides privacy but still includes "a home" setting.
"There are places to play outside, too, and they've had fun water balloon fights with children and families there," she said. "New Start for Children & Families is a place where they can go and have fun."
Laura Caldwell agreed.
"We just felt the need to help these children," she said. "We have to help these kids and families."
The Caldwells stay busy making sure the house is stocked with food for the children and families so they they can enjoy what Laura Caldwell calls a "normal, peaceful" gathering with each other.
"And we're not talking about Twinkies and other Hostess cakes," she said. "We can put together quick meals like spaghetti and sauce, and there's hamburger meat in the refrigerator."
Laura Caldwell then smiled.
"People will be surprised to learn what the children's favorite food is here," she said. "It's pancakes. Kids love the pancakes. They go through quite a batch of pancakes."
The New Start home also is a place where police officers can investigate child abuse cases, as well as a site to allow therapeutic programs to help mend the bonds between children and their families, Laura Caldwell said.
"We do a couple therapeutic painting workshops, and those have been fun and helpful," she said. "We had 14 kids in here for one of the painting workshops, and we had 10 children in here for another event. It's been really good."
A free food pantry is perched on a post near the house's driveway. Organic sandwich crackers, beans, taco shells, pasta and a Bible are among the free items offered in the pantry.
"The food pantry is always empty because people are in such need; we're always putting food in it to help others," Laura Caldwell said moments before two vehicles pulled into the driveway.
One of the best parts of the facility is its kitchen, Pippin said.
"If the families visit during meal times, they can create a meal there at the house, or parents can bring their own food if they like," she said.
For C.R. Caldwell, seeing the children benefit from New Start for Children & Families is the most rewarding part.
"You feel bad for the children who come here because sometimes a kid is dropped off with nothing, so that kid feels bad because he or she is rejected," he said. "But that kid can come here and gain a sense of structure, confidence and, most of all, a loving presence.
"The kids can come to this place and get a sense of stability and comfort from a blanket and their own clothes here," C.R. Caldwell added. "Sometimes the children don't know anything else at first, but then they are here, and so it's refreshing for them."
C.R. Caldwell said he credits the success of New Start for Children & Families to his faith and to his wife.
"My wife is always at the facility because she is very sensitive to the children's needs; she wants to make sure they feel welcome," he said. "This whole passion and vision are from her. It's a foundation-builder for something a lot bigger because we are serving these children. We are extending the service of Jesus to these children."
The Caldwells currently are in need of monetary donations, as well as donations of food and clothing to help the children and their families. The Caldwells and their supporters will host a large yard sale as part of the annual "Bargains Galore on 64" event Aug. 11-12, and they currently are selling $8 tickets for the Arkansas Naturals Baseball game Aug. 27.
The baseball tickets, which are being held to send foster children and their families to see the baseball game for free, can be purchased by calling (479) 430-3529. The home's Clothes & Coat Giveaway event will be held in the fall.
"The New Start house here is small, but it is serving a purpose," Laura Caldwell said. "We are renting the house, and our goal is to eventually get a bigger place and do more. Right now, though, the house is working. Hopefully we are helping these children and their families."