By Lynn J. Richardson
In 2014, Ronda Paulson and husband, Corey, were deep into the 8-week training to become foster parents. During week seven, the group met at the Washington County Department of Children’s Services — her first visit to any DCS facility.
As the instructor proceeded through the training, at some point Paulson heard him say, “…and when a child is removed, they come here.”
She looked around the room. It was dingy and dark with old carpet, no windows and a broken VCR in the corner.
“No,” she thought. “That can’t be right.”
She raised her hand and asked, “Sir, what do you mean, ‘when they are removed from the home, they come here?’”
The instructor’s reply devastated Ronda.
“A little girl slept here in this room last night.”
“I felt my head go over and I couldn’t pick it back up the rest of the night,” Paulson said. “I just kept seeing this little girl in my mind…who had left the only mama she had ever known, the only home she’d ever known, with just a couple of items stuffed into a black plastic trash bag.
“She had to stay here for hours, in this outdated conference room, and while she was waiting she probably was overhearing the case worker making calls. ‘No, we understand it’s late. It’s o.k. We’ll try you again next time.’ Rejection after rejection after rejection — and this little child has done nothing wrong.
“And in that moment, I heard God say, ‘These are my children. What are you going to do about it?’
“And I didn’t know what that meant in 2014.”
A year later, Paulson, who lives in Elizabethton, made her first trip to the Carter County DCS.
“There was this fiery redheaded, pale-skinned little boy in an outfit way too small for him. He was nine months old. His clothes were so dirty that they had to put whatever they had on him. They told me he desperately needed a bath and they had no way to bathe a baby there. His one possession was a filthy diaper bag that I was instructed to leave outside my house for at least 24 hours so the roaches could crawl out.
Tears welled in Paulson’s eyes at the memory. “He reached for me and smiled,” she said. “His name was Isaiah, and we took him home.”
Over the next two years of working through the foster care and adoption process, Paulson saw a desperate need and she started asking herself, “What if there was a home for these kids to go to instead of a conference room or a cubicle, a place where there were comfy couches, soft beds, a fully stocked bathroom, lice kits, and a play area out back — house with crayons and bubbles — anything that a child would need?”
“What if in those traumatic hours of transition we could lavishly love on this child?” Paulson added. “And what if the minute we meet them we could start giving them the message, ‘You’ve done nothing wrong. You are loved. There is hope.’”
In 2017, Paulson googled “How to Start A Nonprofit.” She developed a plan and asked her community to help her make a dream come true. The support was overwhelming. Just a year later, on June 19, 2018, Isaiah 117 House opened its doors in Elizabethton to serve Carter, Unicoi and Johnson Counties. Children leave Isaiah 117 House for their new home, nurtured and encouraged, with many needs met and a backpack filled with sleepwear, clothing, school supplies and other necessities.
Paulson, Isaiah 117 House executive director and founder, says she is excited about plans to establish even more homes throughout Northeast Tennessee and beyond. More than 50 children have been served since June at the Carter County location and the help they receive, she says, is transformative.
“When a kid believes they are the ones responsible for their tough situation, that can change the trajectory of his or her whole future, so anything we can do to reduce the trauma for a child who is going through the worst day of their life will only benefit this next generation,” Paulson said.
Work to establish additional Isaiah 117 Houses is already underway in Greene and Sullivan Counties, and Paulson says she is committed to finding that same support in Washington County, hopefully to establish a house in the Jonesborough area. Washington and Greene Counties have the largest number of child removals of any counties in Northeast Tennessee.
The need is great, but despite the challenges, there are happy endings, Paulson says.
Just ask Isaiah.
The little 9-month-old who reached for Paulson is now four years old and a full fledged member of the Paulson family, who adopted him and his brother, Eli, who will be two in March. They join the Paulson’s biological children, Sophie, 16 and Mac, 12.
For more information, visit www.Isaiah117House.com.