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A Total Game Changer for Foster Care

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

On the surface, Dena and Bryan Garner’s decision to become foster parents made little sense.

They were already raising three children, and their attentions and financial resources were both stretched thin. Still, deep down, they felt called.

“We didn’t come to this from a place from abundance,” Bryan said. “We just looked at it as, what can we do together as a family to love people for God?”

The Garners felt prepared to foster one child but were asked to take in two non-English speaking brothers. Dena said the request overwhelmed her at first … until later that night, when she was reading a Bible story to her children about the parting of the Red Sea.

“It was a kids’ version, and it just spoke to my heart in how God would make a way for us to take on these two boys who needed us,” she said.

The couple opened their home to the two boys and added a third child later. Looking back, they realized how little they understood about the realities of foster parenting.

“We were so green,” laughed Dena. “We thought we’d save the world, but we soon realized we are a hot mess. We do not have it together.”

Managing the relationships and responsibilities connected to foster care can be stressful. Respite care is supposed to ease this stress by providing a temporary break from the around-the-clock demands facing these families. The Garners said the respite care available to them at the time fell short in many ways.

“We used them a couple of times, but very sparingly,” Bryan said. “It was more of warehousing children for the weekend. They’d watch TV, eat a bunch of junk food, and then come back to us.”

Dena said respite providers were not always prepared to manage their children’s emotional and behavioral needs, creating stress in what was supposed to be a restful experience. The Garners realized there was a better way when they met Three Rivers Respite founders Heather and Matt Alt.

The Alts had fostered 10 children and experienced many of the same gaps in respite care. They decided to build something different: a nature-based program aimed at building trust, stability, spiritual enrichment, and a sense of connection to community.

“It can’t just be, ‘I have to drop you off to get a break.’ The kids need a respite too,” explained Heather. “Their whole life is, ‘I’m the foster kid. I’m the one who’s different.’ To be able to take a break from that and be around other kids who are in a similar situation is a rest for them.”

The Alts described their vision to Dena and Bryan: A seven-acre camp on Johns Island, with trails, an outdoor chapel, two bunkhouses, and a clubhouse for meals and group gatherings. Weekend camps during the school year and weeklong sessions in the summer for no more than 12 children at a time. No TV or video games. All activities would be outdoors—group hikes, equine therapy, woodworking workshops—all aimed at promoting trust, community, and a healthy sense of each child’s unique and vital place within the social unit. Importantly, all counselors and volunteers would be trained in Trust-Based Relational Intervention, so that they all could understand and adopt the best approaches in caring for children recovering from trauma.

The Garners were hooked.

“We were surprised and overjoyed,” recalled Dena. “'They get it’ was our impression.”

Bryan agreed, commenting, “It’s a total game changer. The way that Three Rivers is looking to do things is amazing. I can see this being a model that could be done in so many other locations.”

Dena and Bryan wanted to help the Alts turn their vision into a reality and, in December 2021, made a significant donation toward the $800,000 needed to get Three Rivers Respite up and running.

Matt said he sees the Garners as much more than donors to the cause. He regards them as friends and committed, long-term partners.

“I think they’re in it for the long run," Matt said. "They see the value of what we’re doing because they’ve been there.”

The Garners are excited about putting Three Rivers Respite one step closer to opening its doors to campers.

Dena told Heather that her vision is for one of her now-adopted children to be serving as a counselor at Three Rivers one day.

“That just gives me chills,” Heather replied. “That’s what we want: To make a difference in their lives to the point where they can say, ‘I want to make a difference now in other kids’ lives.’ They have a voice. And we want them to feel empowered to use that.”

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