The organization enlists volunteers to care for children while parents work through a crisis, empowering the community to be part of the solution. (Photography by Brian Tietz)

Personalities


Building the Village

Through Better Together, Megan Rose is rewriting the playbook on foster care.

Megan Rose’s name arises repeatedly among nonprofit organizers and community leaders alike. She’s the founder and CEO of Better Together, a nonprofit that helps families in crisis avoid the foster care system. Even one conversation with Rose reveals why so many are enamored; her empathy is immediately evident. “In America, we should value children,” she says, as we talk over coffee in a quiet corner of a Cape Coral lunch spot. “There really shouldn’t be homeless children when we have guest bedrooms, and we have resources and there’s caring and compassionate people.” Her ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for foster care.

With degrees in psychology and human services from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Rose started her career in 2009 in Fort Myers as a child welfare case manager with Lutheran Services Florida. In 2012, she took a leadership position with Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services to start its new foster care program in Southwest Florida. Three years later, she left the child welfare system to focus on prevention by starting a local chapter of the Chicago-based crisis-support group Safe Families for Children.

With its immense caseload, the state foster care system often enters the scene too late, Rose says. As a case manager, she saw that parents she worked with loved their children; they just didn’t have a strong support system. She also saw children separated from their parents only to be abused in foster homes. “Wouldn’t these kids have been better off with their parents if the parents had the support they needed to be able to keep their kids safe?” she says. In her own life, she credits compassionate individuals with caring for her family as her dad worked through addiction.

In 2020, the organization assisted 828 kids through its Better Families program that places children in safe homes. Through Better Jobs, they helped 4,000 second-chance applicants gain employment.

The Safe Families model enlists volunteers to care for children while the parents work through a crisis. In that first year, the organization helped 105 local families. But because Safe Families was started with seed money from government grants, Rose says there was a perception among parents that they could still lose their children to the foster care system. So in 2018, Rose broke from Safe Families to create a nonprofit that’s completely funded through private donations. By doing so, Better Together keeps families out of the state system entirely.

The goal is to support families before the situation becomes so dire and stressful that the parents neglect or abuse their children. Better Together listens, gets to the root cause of the crisis—be it joblessness, addiction, homelessness, a medical or mental health condition—and connects the parents with the resources they need to get back on their feet, from job coaching to addiction counseling. Partnerships with professionals like those at the David Lawrence Centers and the Community Counseling Center at Florida Gulf Coast University help meet these needs.

Through the Better Families program, families are matched with vetted volunteers who care for the children while the parents work to improve their situation. While separated, the parents can still spend time with their children and get moral support from the host family. “I think of it as going to the grocery store with my three kids,” Rose says. “We would be there forever. We’d have, you know, a meltdown in Aisle 2. … But if I went by myself, I could get a lot done.” If all fails and the children are in danger, Better Together must report to the state. But it rarely happens; 98% of the program’s families stay out of the state system, according to Better Together data.

Rose hopes to expand Better Together across the state and as a model for the rest of the country.

Host families complete training, provide references and go through background and home safety checks. The organization looks for families who are empathetic, compassionate and have a desire to help. They want host families who will love the children and also support the parents without judgment. The average stay is 41 days; 90% of the children return to their parents within 90 days; and there’s a limit of one year. Other volunteer positions include job coaches and family mentors. In 2020, the Better Families program served 828 children in 13 counties.

Because Rose and her team found that 76% of cases stem from job loss, in 2016 they created Better Jobs, a program that partners with churches to host job fairs that specialize in bringing together second-chance applicants and employers. The fairs proved so successful they’ve spread to churches in 24 states.

In 2020, the Cape Coral Community Foundation named Better Together the Nonprofit Rising Organization of the Year. Rose also received the Manhattan Institute Civil Society Award in 2019, and the 2020-21 Civil Society Fellowship, which recognizes nonprofit leaders who are creatively helping solve challenges in a community.

Rose is, as she says, a heels-on-the-ground type of CEO. No job is beneath her. You’re just as likely to find her driving across town to help a parent in crisis or folding laundry with a mom in need as you are to see her courting donors or meeting with board members. “Sometimes I don’t feel like I fit in a box and that’s OK,” she says.

The heels-on-the-ground CEO—who is currently expecting her fourth child—has helped care for 19 children with her husband.

She describes herself as a true believer in people, an eternal optimist who has made it her life’s work to help people reach their potential. You might call her an entrepreneurial do-gooder. She’s a person of faith, and family is everything. She’s always wanted a big family, and when we met, one of the first things she enthusiastically shared is that she and her husband, Mason, are now expecting their fourth child. “We’re a team when it comes to the kids, and he really just loves and believes in what we do,” she says. Aside from their kids—ages 6, 4, 2 and baby on the way—the couple has hosted 19 children.

One recent child arrived in the middle of the night after his parents were arrested for stealing food. He was 5, the same age as her son at the time, and he was scared. When the boys met in the morning, her oldest hugged the boy and said, “You’re safe.” He also shared his favorite toy.

To help others, Rose makes time for herself. She reads. She fishes. She plays with her children; it energizes her, she says. She’s intentional with her time: “The cup has to be full if we’re going to give,” she says.

Rose plans to expand Better Together to cover the entire state. The idea is to then become a model for other states. “We’ve been able to prove that we can keep families, even the most vulnerable, out of the system with the right prevention.”

They also tend to give back. “All of our families, they have something they can offer this community,” Rose says. “Maybe it’s not money or resources, but we see our families volunteer and help other families.” Some become mentors; some help staff events; some share their story or collect resources. “When you start thinking there’s nothing they can contribute, that removes people’s dignity, but if you believe in them and you see their potential, you can motivate them toward success. They can accomplish anything.”

 

Photography by Brian Tietz

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