It started with the Holy Spirit tugging at her heart. Join co-hosts Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber as they talk with Tasha Whitener about her desire to create a camp for foster children and how the Lord kept pulling her heart towards this unique ministry. In this special episode, you’ll hear practical ways you can get involved in foster care as an individual or a church, and listen to Tasha’s many triumphs and struggles on this walk called Waymark.
Discover ways you can support foster families and their children at www.sendrelief.org.
Learn more about Tasha’s ministry, Waymark, at waymarkfoster.org.
Announcer: Welcome to the Adopting and Fostering Home Podcast. Whether your family has been on this journey for years, or you’re just getting started, we’re here to support and encourage you along the way.
And now your hosts, Lynette Ezell and Tera Melber.
Tera Melber: Lynette, one of the key premises in the Experiencing God Bible Study by Henry Blackaby, is that God is always at work around us. Through a relationship with Him, He invites us to join in His work, and today’s guest has experienced God in just this way.
Lynette Ezell: Yeah, she sure has. Today we are welcoming Tasha Whitener. And Tasha and her husband Doug, they’re the founders of a really unique ministry called Waymark. As a former teacher, a CPS case worker and a children’s ministry leader, Tasha brings great perspective to the needs of foster children. And what I love about her is that her desires to share the hope of Jesus while equipping foster youth for life. So, Tasha, thanks for joining us today. We’re so thankful for your time and your willingness to share your story.
Tasha Whitener: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Lynette Ezell: You know, we want to hear all about Waymark and we want to hear all that’s going … it’s just amazing. Reading through your website and seeing the videos, but before we jump into that, I want you to share with our listeners how a desire … because Tera and I’ve just talked and talked about this, but how a desire, a leading by the Holy Spirit, that tugging at your heart won’t go away until you do something, how does that give birth to a ministry as big as Waymark?
Tasha Whitener: Well, I’ll tell you. I was on staff at First Baptist Woodstock, an elementary ministry. I’ve been there for a good while, and I went to a children’s pastors’ conference, and it was at that conference that I heard the founders of Royal Family Kids Camps speak and that’s Wayne and Diane Tesch, and I … this was all new to me. I didn’t know anything about the role of the foster care. I knew nothing about these kids. I really didn’t. I’d been pretty sheltered growing up and so as soon as I heard, I was like, “Lord, I’ve got to get involved, I’ve got to”, and this and Royal Family Kid’s Camp is just an incredible ministry, so I was, “Lord, I’m ready”.
Tasha Whitener: We’ve got to do something because this is just not okay, what was happening. But I was young at the time and so the Lord was, “Not yet.” And so I was, “OK, all right.” So, kind of put it to the side for a little bit, it was still, of course, a burden in my heart. Years later, a guy called me to work at DFCS, so I served there as a CPS case worker for a short while, and I believe He called me there, and then I believe He called me out. It was a really good experience and that I was able to see the inner workings of the system and it was just, it gave me some really great insight.
Lynette Ezell: Oh, it had to have. That’s amazing, yeah.
Tasha Whitener: Yeah, it really did. It really did. And so I went back to work again at First Baptist Woodstock and it was almost to the day, about 10 years after, I heard Wayne and Dianne Tesch speak, that the Lord was, it was one of the most clear things I can remember was, “It’s time. It’s time to start a Royal Family Kids Camp”, and I was, “All right, well, let’s go”. So, I went to our pastor, pastor Johnny Hunt and he was just, “Let’s do this. Let’s send you to training, let’s go.” So, he was incredibly supportive in the whole process, so I went to training, and we started our first camp in 2008.
Lynette Ezell: That’s incredible Tasha. You know what I find really astounding about that is that the Lord placed a seed in your heart 10 years prior.
Tera Melber: That’s right.
Lynette Ezell: And then He began intricately weaving things in and out of your life to get you to 10 years later, hearing someone speak, and you knew at that moment, okay the Holy Spirit put the seed in my life this long ago, and now He’s given me the go ahead to start what, and to give you the idea of what to do next. I love that.
Tera Melber: Because I think sometimes we, like the time you spend at DFCS, and that’s not, I can’t think of a more difficult job, a more difficult calling, but you had to have thought, Lord, how is all this coming together and then He just, He puts all those pieces together.
Tasha Whitener: He does.
Lynette Ezell: It is really incredible. So after you started Royal … why don’t explain first of all, what is Royal Family Kids Camp. Many of our listeners may not know.
Tasha Whitener: Right, so Royal Family Kids Camp, it is an overnight week long camp for kids who are in foster care, ages six to 12, and you do the things that you typically think of when you think of summer camp. You go fishing and hiking and swimming and all of those things, but it’s specialized for these kids. Tailored just for kids who’ve experienced abuse and so, the ratio is two campers for every, we call them big campers, but there are camp counselors-
Lynette Ezell: That’s awesome.
Tasha Whitener: Because it’s not their job to counsel, they have enough counselors in their life. They just need somewhere to go and have fun, pour the love of Christ into them. So, we do that, and we do different special events. We do a princess ball, so our girls get dressed up in these beautiful formals and walk the runway and they hear about how precious and how special they are and how valuable they are and so we do that and the boys, we’ve done different things for them. I think we have a biker group coming in this year, but we’ve done obstacle course, karate, all of those things that are boy things and so building up their confidence and all of that and then we do a variety show, so these kids, it’s really, really neat, these kids that come off of the bus. Those who don’t know us yet, those who know us of course are, “Hey”, and just so happy to see us, but those that don’t know us, they don’t know if they can trust us. They don’t know what to expect.
Tera Melber: That’s right.
Tasha Whitener: And so, but by the time Thursday rolls around, these kids are up on stage, and they’re dancing, and they’re singing and they’re, it’s just, it’s beautiful to watch, them, those walls being broken down.
Tera Melber: Yeah, because trust, yeah absolutely, trust has to be, when I was reading about the Royal Kids Camps online and trying to wrap my head around that, trust has to be a major hurdle for these kids to be able to-
Tasha Whitener: Huge.
Tera Melber: Go to camp, away from their foster families, and just trust all these strangers.
Tasha Whitener: Oh, my goodness, it’s so huge. So, a lot of camp is just spent building that trust, and it’s communicating the truth that you are so deeply loved and valued and God has a purpose and plan for your life. That’s the core of what we do. Who they are in Christ and most of them, the majority of them have never heard that message. A lot of them have never received a bible. There’s so many first this week for these kids and there are birthday parties. I can’t tell you how many kids have come up to me and told me that they’ve never had their birthday celebrated, it was just so special to them, and so we celebrated. This may not be your actual birthday, but we’re celebrating the God of the universe created you. He knew you before you were born.
Lynette Ezell: That’s right.
Tasha Whitener: You are precious and you are special and so it’s really just an absolute incredible week. We give them photo albums, because a lot of them don’t have pictures from their childhood, they get mail every day with [capil 00:07:32] ton of course. The bible stories, all of that. It’s an absolutely incredible week with these kids.
Tera Melber: So the Lord used Royal Kids Camp to really move you forward in Waymark. Waymark was launched in 2010, is that correct?
Tasha Whitener: That is correct.
Tera Melber: What’s behind the name Waymark?
Tasha Whitener: So I need to go back a little because we started out as Kids Cubed, so we just rebranded last year. When we started, we knew we wanted to equip these kids with the skills and support necessary for success. That’s where Kids Cubed came from and that’s where my husband and I, we founded it as Kids Cubed. So, we feel like, 10 years later, almost 11 years later, we really want to, from that very first camp, we really wanted the name to reflect the population that we’re serving. I’m jumping forward a little bit just by explaining the name, but we don’t just serve kids anymore.
Tasha Whitener: At the beginning we did, but now we’re serving young adults, and those who are aging out of the system, so we really wanted the name to reflect that and also it really is a great description of what we do. It evokes progress, it’s a point from which we find direction, resources, a path forward. We want to walk hand in hand with these precious youth, giving them the guidance and tools that they need along the way.
Tasha Whitener: There’s a verse in the Bible, not a super well known verse, at least it wasn’t to me, but it’s Jeremiah 31:21, it says, “Set up road signs; put up guideposts. Take note of the highway, the road that you take.” So that’s, that’s it, right there. That’s why we became Waymark last year.
Lynette Ezell: So after you had launched, or been a part of Royal Family Kids Camp and then you launched Waymark initially as Kids Cubed, tell us what kinds of things that you do through this ministry.
Tasha Whitener: When we, let me just, I’ll tell you a little bit about why we started, is that okay?
Tera Melber: Yes.
Lynette Ezell: Absolutely.
Tasha Whitener: [crosstalk 00:09:39] nonprofit, okay. So after that first year of Royal Family, we met these kids, and we’re, we can’t stop at 12. We can’t just say, “See you later, have a nice life.” When you meet them, get to know them and you understand the need for that consistency in our life and statistics. I don’t know if you are familiar with, you probably, I’m sure you are, statistics for kids in foster care, one in particular that jumps out to me is that 74% of the prison inmates are former foster children.
Tasha Whitener: And then, and this one I know is fresh in everybody’s mind, as far as human trafficking, 60 to 80% of those involved in human trafficking are currently, or were once part of the foster care system. Of course, you see the statistics with the homelessness and the unemployed and all of that so, you see these statistics, and we’ve got to get involved on a deeper level and so in order to do that we had to start a nonprofit. You talk about the faith part of that, the walk, that was such a faith journey, you know, “Lord I don’t know what this looks like.”
Lynette Ezell: I can imagine.
Tasha Whitener: I know this ministry here that I’m involved in, I don’t know this, I don’t know what this looks like. I have no idea, but I knew it’s never been so clear as to the fact that God was calling us to do that and so it was just that step of faith. “Okay Lord, you called Doug and I to start this nonprofit, we’re just going to do it”. He’s been so faithful along the way to provide in every way, shape, and form and it has not, you said, challenging, yes, it has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but the best things, the best thing I have ever done, because when you walk that journey and trust the Lord and watch Him do what only He can do, it’s absolutely unbelievable.
Tasha Whitener: As far as what we do, I’ll tell you what our mission is, it’s to give hope to youth in foster care by forming personal connections and an understanding that God has a plan and purpose for their lives through a relationship with Jesus Christ and that’s who we are, and we do that though the Royal Family Kids Camp and our Journey Weekends camps and then we have our Xtreme Journey Saturdays and then Community 4 Youth is our mentoring program. I’ll tell you more about that in just a second, but our vision ultimately is to help youth in foster care successfully transition to adulthood by creating the structure and space for caring volunteers to provide skills, support and critical relationships. That’s kind of in a nutshell what we do.
Lynette Ezell: Can you tell us, what is Journey Weekend?
Tasha Whitener: Yes, Journey Weekends, that is, it was formerly called Xtreme Live so when we rebranded we changed the names of our programs as well, a few of them, not Royal Family Kids Camp, but our Journey Weekends used to be Extreme Life, so those are weekend camps. Those, we go to north Georgia, and it’s again the whole foundation of, you’re loved and you’re valued and God has a purpose and plan for your life. We do high and low ropes courses, we have chapel time, we have roundtable talks, where we sit around and talk about things that they want to talk about, because so many times they are not heard. Nobody asks them, “What do you think about this?” Or, “What do you want to know about? What do you want to talk about?” So that’s what we do and I am consistently blown away by their transparency to talk about things and so that’s a really special time for us.
Tasha Whitener: We do fishing, the boys play a ton of football, they love that. All these kids, I’m telling you, they want to do it all the time because think about it, a lot of them are in group homes at this point, most of them are in group at this point in their life and they don’t have this huge space, this huge AstroTurf field which is what we have out there, to go just play football and just hang out with these Godly men and these Godly women that are just pouring into them all weekend.
Tasha Whitener: These kids don’t have that opportunity and so they love it. They absolutely love it, being outdoors in fresh air. They play basketball, you name it, we do it out there. We actually had our older kids, our 16, 17 year old boys, they went on a camping trip. For part of the time they actually went away and did something new, kind of more intimate time, special time with them. That was really neat and the girls, we had a special spa time for them. Really we just try to make it special and again, just pouring into them the love of Christ. That’s really what we do on those weekends.
Tera Melber: So Tasha, would you say on Journey Weekends, one of the most important things you do is just to build relationships with these kids.
Tasha Whitener: Oh my goodness, yes. That really, that’s the key to what we do.
Tera Melber: Because it seems like everything you’re doing is just pointing toward relationship, not just entertaining. Giving them something else to attend, but you’re really going after the heart and like you said, character building, conflict resolution, learning to team build.
Tasha Whitener: That’s truly what its all about, it’s all about those relationships. Many times we’re the only ones who are consistent in their life. If you think about it, their foster parent changes, their case worker changes, everything in their life changes and many times we’re the only ones who are consistent and we’re very, very intentional about those relationships and it’s not just with us, it’s not just with the adults, but it’s also with other kids, because a lot of them feel like they’re alone. They’re, I’m alone on this journey, but when they realize they’re not, they’re like, “Oh my goodness, you’ve been through what I’ve been through?” It’s huge for them and most importantly pointing them to a relationship with Christ. Obviously that’s the heart of what we do. It is, everything that we do it is all about relationships.
Tera Melber: Because when they leave the foster system they have to know how to recognize a safe relationship and how to build meaningful relationships, I mean, that’s hard for all of us when we leave home, but especially if that’s never been championed in your life or fleshed out before you, it’s really difficult.
Tasha Whitener: Absolutely, absolutely. I agree completely and whether our Xtreme Journeys, those are for 14 to 18 year olds on Saturdays and that really is giving a lot of those practical life and job skills, and so relationships, that’s a part of that, and communication is a huge part of that. Financial management, setting goals, work study skills, interviewing, resume writing, college and career planning. All of those things is really just giving them the support, and the tools that they need so they can prepare, be prepared for independence when they age out of the system.
Tasha Whitener: So, and we’re really, we’re looking at restructuring it to the latter part of this year or first part of 2020, and we’re going to I believe adopt some group homes and take this curriculum to them. We’ll still have our quarterly events where we all come together and celebrate and learn a specific type of skills, and all of that, but we’re also going to take it to them, because a lot of time, our challenge is just the transportation, getting kids to our events, especially when it’s just the Saturday, so we’re going to start taking this curriculum to them. I’m really excited about that and adopting these group homes and having prayer partners, Sunday School classes coming alongside of us and giving them the support that they need, and the love that they need.
Lynette Ezell: That’s really amazing. One of the questions that I know that people, specifically in Georgia, are going to want to know is, how in the world, one, how do I get my children, my foster youth involved in all of this because it’s incredible, and two, how can I get involved as a volunteer?
Tasha Whitener: Absolutely, okay, so, as far as getting their kids involved, really it’s just a matter of going to our website and signing up to receive emails, so I would recommend that, so that’s waymarkfoster.org. And they can reach out to me personally too, so firstname.lastname@example.org. And hopefully it will come through DFCS as well so we work with DFCS, we work with foster agencies, we work with group homes, just getting the word out about what we do because it is a free resource. We don’t charge for anything that we do.
Lynette Ezell: Wow.
Tasha Whitener: So, yeah, that’s the best thing to do is to go to our website and sign up to receive emails and then all they have to do is sign up, so if they meet the requirements, which is just an age requirement, then they, if they can get them to wherever it is that we’re meeting for that particular event, if they have the transportation then, that’s all they have to do. As far as volunteers, same thing. If they go to the website, they can go to the volunteer page and it lists the different opportunities. There are a lot more than that so, there are so many levels of involvement. You can be involved at a camp, you can go as a big camper all the way to being a mentor, which I don’t think we really talked about Community for Youth so if we have a chance we may just want to touch on that real quick.
Tasha Whitener: The level of involvement, there’s so many different ways if you’ve got an individual that wants to be involved, or a group, like a Sunday school class or a community group, there’s just a ton of ways to get involved, and the website really details some of that, they can also reach out to us, and we can go through that step by step and really figure out what the best fit is.
Tera Melber: Well love what you’re saying, that it’s through, you’re asking for help through the body, through the church, the church. God is calling us to engage the lives of foster youth so that the numbers begin to change.
Tasha Whitener: Amen.
Lynette Ezell: And that we as the body of Christ are doing our part to serve in the capacity in which he’s gifted us, that we are to use our gifts for the health of the body of Christ and for His service and obedience to Him.
Tera Melber: Because some people just like to go fishing, what a better way to connect with a foster youth who loves to go fishing, so I love that.
Lynette Ezell: I’m telling David, he’s going to want come fishing with your kids.
Tasha Whitener: And I’ll tell you, that’s one of our kids’ favorite things to do, fishing and what a great opportunity to initiate a conversation. Its just that relational evangelism, it’s just that as you go and it’s just hanging out fishing and that is, some of our best conversations are had during those times.
Lynette Ezell: While you’re waiting for that fish to bite, exactly.
Tera Melber: Exactly, exactly.
Lynette Ezell: That’s great. Hey before we jump into Community for Youth, if you have foster youth outside of Georgia, because you said you’re in north Georgia, so Tennessee, South Carolina or anywhere. Are they all welcome to come or is it strictly for Georgia.
Tasha Whitener: Absolutely, absolutely. Now there’s extra, they have to get extra permission to be able to come across states lines to be able to participate in something, but as far as we’re concerned, as long as they have that permission, then absolutely.
Lynette Ezell: That’s fantastic.
Tasha Whitener: We have had some from other states coming through.
Tera Melber: Okay, that’s great, that’s great. So tell us a bit about Community for Youth.
Tasha Whitener: So, the mission of that ministry is to create a support system for kids in foster care. We provide opportunities to connect with adults. For example if you went to Royal Family as a big camper and you met a kid and you went, “You know what, I’d really like to continue a relationship with this child.” So then you would come to us and we would talk to you about what’s involved in being a mentor. We would go through that process. That’s really where the relationship starts, at one of our events. We want it to be an existing relationship, because they have so much more of a likelihood to be successful if there’s already an existing relationship there. We do quarterly events as well. We did that so we’d have more opportunities for connections so those people that, maybe can’t go out for a week long camp, or a weekend camp, can maybe come out for a quarterly event, like going to Exodus Ranch or the North Georgia Fair or something along those lines.
Tasha Whitener: So the same thing there, they’ll connect and say, “You know what, I’d like to continue the relationship with this child”, and we have four different ways. You can be a traditional mentor, which for us, is that lifetime relationship, which to me, is ideal because they’ve had so much transition, so much inconsistency in their life and we really want to be the ones that are consistent. It’s really ideally that commitment to the age of 18 and beyond. Then we also have the transitional professional support as they age out of the system. We also have tutoring and then we have a pen pal, so we have those four different ways to be involved in the lives of these kids. Our goal is to have a mentor for every child that goes to one of our programs. Every child has a person to walk with them on this journey and to just love on them. That is our ultimate goal.
Tera Melber: Tasha, I would love to see Waymark blow up in all 50 states. ‘
Lynette Ezell: I know.
Tera Melber: I would just love to see this grow and so we’re going to, we’re going to pray to that end, so you stay active and fit so we can see this great … you know you’re a living, breathing example of the word visit, in James 127, and you know that word means how God himself visits his people to help and to strengthen them, to encourage them, so to visit foster youth means to seek them out, like you’re doing, with a deep concern for their well being and then taking action to meet their needs. Not just their physical needs.
Lynette Ezell: Spiritual, emotional.
Tera Melber: Spiritual, right. Make those connections with them and like you said, life long consistent connections, because that’s what I need, that’s what Tara needs, that’s what we all need.
Tasha Whitener: Right. Amen.
Lynette Ezell: Tasha, we’re so grateful that you came to talk to us today and we’re going to have your website and your contact information in our show notes, so if people have questions about Waymark specifically, or about Royal Family Kids Camp, which is a nationwide ministry that people can get involved in, anywhere in the country and be trained for.
Tasha Whitener: Absolutely.
Lynette Ezell: And they can contact you or the websites that we will list there. Thank you so much for your time. We pray the Lord sweetest blessings on your ministry as you go forward.
Tasha Whitener: Thank you so much. I appreciate it so much, thank you for the opportunity.
Announcer: You have been listening to the Adopting and Fostering Home, a resource of the North American Mission Board. For more information about today’s podcast and other relevant resources, visit sendrelief.org.