Natalie Milom’s favorite spot inside the Supporting Adoption & Foster Families Together (SAFFT) facility is one wall of the 10,000-square-foot complex.
It’s the “prayer wall,” where children and parents can write down their hopes on a piece of paper, roll it up and stick it into metal wiring. When a prayer comes true, the child or parent writes it out on a small square piece of chalkboard and puts it on the wall.
It was one of the positive things Milom inherited when she was hired as SAFFT’s executive director just over a year ago from founders Brian and Ashley Anderson, who left after nearly 10 years with the local nonprofit organization to spend more time with their own family and focus on new business opportunities.
Milom came from Greenville, South Carolina, where she was a social worker for a local hospital. Before that, she ran an agency that helped families in poverty. That was the work she wanted to get back to when she was hired by SAFFT.
But Milom inherited some challenges. SAFFT, which has “family life centers” in Cumming and Gainesville that serve the foster care community, was “highly inefficient,” Milom said. She found strained relationships with stakeholders. Some services that SAFFT provided were “fragmented,” she said.
“When I got here, we were in a pickle,” Milom said.
Less than a month into the job, Milom was already confronting those challenges. During one meeting with Hall County Juvenile Court judges, she sensed so much frustration that she wondered if SAFFT’s contract to provide supervised visitations for families would get renewed.
“My mind was blown by the things I was told that were not going on,” Milom said. She added, “It was a painful conversation.”
Milom managed to turn the relationship around. SAFFT staff started to attend more court hearings, even if they weren’t subpoenaed. Milom made sure to attend Hall County Juvenile Court’s bimonthly event for children, or send a staff member if she couldn’t.
The effort paid off.
“Today, we get referrals,” Milom said.
Milom has been just as methodical when making other changes. SAFFT was under financial duress, she said, mostly from its large staff, so she trimmed the number of paid employees from more than 30 to eight over the course of eight months. SAFFT now has one program coordinator, two family success managers and one therapist (which Milom re-named “family success clinician”) at each of its centers.
Milom joined a monthly roundtable meeting for Forsyth County nonprofits to make connections with other local organizations.
She also conducted several focus groups to assess the needs of Forsyth and Hall counties with biological parents, foster parents and stakeholders like CASA of Forsyth County, local Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) offices and the juvenile court systems.
Foster parents and DFCS said they wanted more local providers who could provide a wide spectrum of behavioral and psychological assessments. Foster and adoptive parents said they wanted support groups to share concerns with others going through the same thing.
Milom has plans for SAFFT to address all of it with “wrap-around” support services. The organization will also start to offer transportation and in-home counseling soon, including on the weekends.
Even in the midst of all the challenges, SAFFT still did a lot of work in the community. In 2018 alone, SAFFT provided 3,666 one-on-one parent coaching sessions; 3,536 case management sessions; and 2,066 supervised visitations, among its other services, according to the organization.
“I think we have made a ton of progress,” Milom said.
Next year, Milom plans to begin the process of getting SAFFT accredited, a “huge undertaking,” she said, but one she believes the organization can handle, particularly because of its board of directors.
“I’ve worked with volunteer boards before, but I’ve never quite seen a board that is this dedicated,” Milom said. “They have stood here through a lot of uncertainty.”
Milom sees the organization growing in the future but in a way that is financially viable and maintains strong relationships with other nonprofit partners and stakeholders in the community.
“Now we have a foundation from where we can build,” Milom said. “We have so much opportunity for growth.”