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The Gazette: Mary Beth O’Neill’s guest column, “Iowa needs diverse foster families”

Guest column by Mary Beth O’Neill that appeared in The Gazette:

As an organization that spans the whole of Iowa, Four Oaks faces many needs in the coming year. While specific needs can vary widely by program and region, there is one critical challenge we see throughout the state: a shortage of foster families, especially those with diverse backgrounds.

Children in foster care thrive when they are placed in temporary homes that feel familiar to them. As children transition to foster care, it can be devastating to leave not only their family of origin but also the familiarity of the customs, traditions, foods, music and even language that is ingrained in the culture they know and understand. Children have an increased sense of belonging when their foster family shares their culture and can provide an environment that feels like their home of origin.

Studies have shown that placing children with families of similar ethnic or racial backgrounds helps promote a positive cultural identity, which contributes to higher self-esteem and lower rates of depression and anxiety. A strong cultural identity is good for overall mental health and helps children learn the skills to combat any adversity they may encounter in their lives.

We have seen the difference culturally diverse foster families can make to our children in foster care. Recently, a diverse Four Oaks foster family welcomed two elementary-age girls. Before they arrived at the home, the girls did not have the support they needed to care for their textured hair.

The new home with an amazing foster family had the knowledge and resources the children needed. The foster parents understood the importance of hair conditioning and maintenance in the culture they shared with the children and were able to support the children physically and emotionally through their transition into foster care.

The need for diverse foster families across the state is great. From our biggest cities to our most remote rural areas, Iowa needs foster families that reflect the culture or ethnicity of our children in foster care.

Can you be a home that welcomes a child with the support and resources they need to thrive? Visit to get started today.

Mary Beth O’Neill is president and CEO of Four Oaks.

The Gazette: Affordable Housing Network plans to focus resources on family housing after selling Geneva Tower, Hawthorn Hills

From The Gazette:

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Affordable House Network, an affiliate of Four Oaks Family and Children Services, sold two low-income apartment properties in Cedar Rapids as part of a strategic plan to focus more resources on family housing, according to Debbie Craig, Four Oaks’ chief advocacy officer.

The sale of Geneva Tower, 310 Fifth Ave. SE, and Hawthorne Hills, 2283 C St. SW, to Edgemark Communities, the affordable housing division of Denver-based Edgemark Development, was finalized Friday.

Financial terms were not disclosed.

Both apartment buildings are income-based properties partially funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Edgemark has experience with managing affordable housing properties, according to it website, and has renewed the properties’ Housing Assistance Payments Contracts for the next 20 years, according to a news release from the Affordable Housing Network.

Craig said that because Geneva Tower is specifically designed for low-income seniors and adults with disabilities, and Hawthorne Hills is mostly single bedroom apartments occupied by single adults, the housing network leadership believed its resources could be better used in ways that more closely fulfill the network’s values.

“We just evaluated the current portfolio of all of our properties, and we wanted to ensure that it fit our mission and vision and values,” Craig said.

The housing network’s “mission statement is to provide decent, safe and sustainable housing that promotes stability for families. Because (the housing network) is an affiliate with Four Oaks, and our mission is to ensure children become successful adults, we really feel like all of our services … are focused and rooted on the family,” she said.

Craig said final decisions haven’t been made regarding new projects in which the housing network could invest to better support families, such as single-family homes or apartment properties with limited units and more space in each unit.

All the housing network staff at Geneva Tower and Hawthorne Hills have stayed with the network, Craig said, and will be working at the network’s other properties.

Mary Price, a resident of Geneva Tower who has lived there for 32 years, said she has seen a lot of changes at the apartment building, but they still always makes her nervous.

“I don’t like the unexpected,” Price said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

Edgemark staff held a meeting with Geneva Tower residents earlier this week in which they assured them that rent wouldn’t be going up and went over some of the details of the staff changes, according to Price.

These are Edgemark’s first property acquisitions in Iowa, but the company has worked with low-income properties and not-for-profit sellers several times in other states, according to Aaron Metz, managing principal at Edgemark.

At Geneva Tower specifically, Metz told The Gazette the company hopes to improve operating efficiency and hire a service coordinator who could help elderly residents with activities such as buying groceries and getting to appointments.

Cedar Rapids Community Development Director Jennifer Pratt said in a statement the Geneva Tower and Hawthorne Hills developments meet a critical need in the community.

“We look forward to working with the new owners who will continue providing housing for these populations,” Pratt said.

Geneva Tower has had three fires in the past 20 years, records show, the most recent in February. Cedar Rapids District 3 City Council member Dale Todd said the city learned from the fire that managing a community of people with complicated medical and mental health needs requires a lot of supportive services.

“This is a costly proposition for a nonprofit or private developer. I am interested in how the new owner plans to make the numbers work in the future and how the current owners plan to support and make the transition a productive one for the tenants and the community,” Todd said.

See original story here

The Gazette: Geneva Tower, Hawthorne Hills sold

From The Gazette:

CEDAR RAPIDS — Two Cedar Rapids multi-unit buildings, Geneva Tower and Hawthorne Hills, have been sold to a Denver-based development company, the Affordable Housing Network said Tuesday.

Geneva Tower, whose apartments at 310 Fifth Ave. SE are rented to mostly low-income seniors and adults with disabilities, and Hawthorne Hills, an income-based housing facility at 2283 C St. SW, were sold to Edgemark Communities, the affordable housing division of Edgemark Development, the network said in a news release.

Financial terms of the sale, finalized Dec. 2, were not released.

“Edgemark Communities has extensive experience acquiring, improving and managing affordable housing properties throughout the Midwest, Southwest and Rocky Mountain region,” the release said.

“AHNI has been evaluating our current portfolio of properties to ensure each one is aligned with our mission — to provide safe and sustainable housing that promotes stability for families and individuals, while also creating community,” Mary Beth O’Neill, president and CEO of Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services and AHNI, its 501(c)3 affiliate, said in the release.

“AHNI vetted a number of potential buyers and chose Edgemark based on the depth and breadth of experience. We are confident that there will not be any gaps in services for the tenants,” O’Neill said.

Edgemark Development, founded 22 years ago, counts shopping centers, self-storage facilities, senior housing, retail and medical office buildings among its properties. Edgemark Communities is its affordable housing division.

Edgemark renewed the property’s Housing Assistance Payments contract for 20 years, the release said.

Four Oaks and AHNI’s human resources department has worked to retain all staff during this transition,“ according to the release.

See the original story here

CBJ: Affordable Housing Network sells Geneva Tower, Hawthorne Hills properties

From the Corridor Business Journal:

Affordable Housing Network, Inc. (AHNI) has announced the sale of two of its Cedar Rapids multi-unit properties, Hawthorne Hills and Geneva Tower, to Edgemark Communities, the affordable housing division of Edgemark Development LLC, based in Denver.

The sale was finalized Dec. 2. The purchase price and other terms of the sale were not disclosed.

Edgemark Communities has extensive experience acquiring, improving, and managing affordable housing properties throughout the Midwest, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain regions, according to an ANHI news release.

Both Hawthorne Hills, at 2283 C St. SW, and Geneva Tower, 310 Fifth Ave. SE, receive subsidies from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Edgemark has renewed the Housing Assistance Payments Contract for both properties for 20 years.

Mary Beth O’Neill, president and CEO of Four Oaks Family and Children’s Services and AHNI, said the sales followed extensive organizational strategic planning.

“AHNI has been evaluating our current portfolio of properties to ensure each one is aligned with our mission: to provide safe and sustainable housing that promotes stability for families and individuals, while also creating community,” Ms. O’Neill said.

AHNI is an affiliate of Four Oaks, a nonprofit agency whose mission is to assure children become successful adults. Services are focused on and rooted in the family, and Four Oaks’ philosophy is to positively impact communities by empowering children and families to achieve stability and self-sufficiency.

“This focus means AHNI and Four Oaks are prioritizing affordable housing opportunities that best serve children, families and community development – single-family homes, multi-family properties with a limited number of units, and a reduction in housing density overall,” Ms. O’Neill added. “AHNI has successfully been achieving that objective in Wellington Heights since 2012.”

Geneva Tower, built in 1971, is an income-based, 12-story property offering 183 efficiency and one-bedroom apartments to seniors age 62 and older and adults with disabilities. Hawthorne Hills, also income-based, was built in 1969 and has a total of 204 efficiency, one-, two- and three-bedroom units in several two-story buildings. The complex was extensively remodeled in 2010 and 2011.

“AHNI vetted a number of potential buyers and chose Edgemark based on the depth and breadth of experience,” Ms. O’Neill added. “We are confident that there will not be any gaps in services for the tenants.”

The Four Oaks/AHNI human resources department has worked to retain all staff during this transition.

ANHI retains a number of other multi-unit properties in Cedar Rapids, including the Cedar Valley Townhomes at 3000 J St. SW, William B. Quarton Place at 85 Harbet Ave. SW and Agin Court Apartments at Agin Court NE.

See the original story here 

KWQC: 2 Clinton County children find permanent homes during National Adoption Month

From KWQC:

CLINTON, Iowa (KWQC) – Four Oaks Foster and Adoptive Family Connections hosted a celebration, honoring National Adoption Month in Clinton on Tuesday.

Two children officially found their permanent homes at the Clinton County Courthouse during formal adoption ceremonies, followed by a small reception for their families.

For Jameson Herrmann and his family, getting adopted was a five-year process.

“I’m just glad it’s over. It’s been a long road, a hard road,” Eileen Herrmann, Jameson’s mom said. “We’re just going to have more time now to spend with him instead of talking to DHS and going here and going there for his meetings … All that we that will be gone”

Four Oaks offers adoption and foster services across 69 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Its resources guided both families in Clinton to complete their adoptions.

Recruiter Liz Estilow said it’s important to be able to celebrate the end of an often lengthy and complicated process.

“Some of these families have been dealing with DHS, and visitations and lawyers and stuff for years,” Estilow said. “This just finally is the finale [and] everybody is together. We can celebrate, we can breathe and we can move forward …, and build that strong bond as a family.”

Both adoptions on Tuesday were to grandparents. Estilow said these kinds of adoptions may be smoother for the kids.

“There’s no more wondering … where they’re going to for visits or …, anything they know that this is where their bedrooms are going to be at,” Estilow said. “This is where their homes at, this is going to be where they’re going to school, and then they know … this is their forever homes.”

For baby Aurora Michaelsen, getting to being adopted was a 15-month process. Her parents are excited for her to have a new start.

“I’m hoping she’ll grow up and be something special,” Angela Michaelsen, Aurora’s mom said. “[Hoping she has a] Good career, teaching her all the right things.”

Four Oaks is currently recruiting potential families for their services. Those who are interested in becoming a candidate for fostering or adoption can visit their website. According to officials starting the process takes about an hour online.

Earlier in the month, Four Oaks held a similar event in Scott County celebrating 13 children finalizing their adoption process on Nov. 19.

See the full story here

Four Oaks Family Connections focuses attention on foster teens for Adoption Month

by Barry Green

Monday afternoon, the Four Oaks Family Connections staff announced they will be focusing their attention on the unique needs teens in foster care for Adoption Month.

Every year, more than 23,000 teens transition into adulthood with no adoptive family or permanent connections to caring adults.

Securing lifelong connections for foster teens are a critical component for their:

  • Future.
  • Achievement.
  • Health.
  • Well-being.

Iowa’s News Now spoke with Tonya Watters, Four Oaks Caseworker and Recruitment Leader, to talk more about focus toward teen adoption.

People are intimidated I think when they hear that there’s a teen in need”, said Watters. “And so, I think that having some more education and some support and realizing that these are kids that you can really make the biggest impact with, those formative years. So I think it would be very helpful for folks to come forward and say that ‘they could foster a teen.

Four Oaks will host a National Adoption Day event on Thursday, November 17th.

Adoptions will run from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Juvenile Justice Center, 211 8th Ave. SW.

This event will feature:

  • Proclamation.
  • Photograph opportunities for families.
  • Food and celebration.

Four Oaks will also hosting several celebrations to recruit new foster families through out December.

The facility will provide support for foster families with:

  • Support.
  • Education.
  • Additional Resources.
  • Team enactment.


Full article can be read at Four Oaks Family Connections focuses attention on foster teens for Adoption Month | KGAN (

Four Oaks’ Liz Estilow Speaks About Foster Care and Her Organization, My G.E.A.R.

Nov 14, 2022

CLINTON – Liz Estilow has seen the terror in a 3-year-old’s eyes when they are taken from the only home they’ve ever known and put in the care of a complete stranger.

Some of them leave with only the clothes they have on, unable to take any of their own personal belongings.

For those who never have had experience with the foster care system, it’s difficult to imagine such a scenario.

However, as someone who worked in the child-welfare system for eight years, Estilow has seen it happen many times.

Seven years ago, she made the decision to create a program to help such children and ease what is often a frightening transition.

“I decided that we needed to do something for our local children going into foster, adoptive or relative placement,” Estilow related. “We did not have any kind of program in the community that took care of the most basic needs for these children at such a traumatic time in their lives.”

So, she founded the My G.E.A.R. Outreach program. “G.E.A.R.” stands for, to “Give” the hope of Jesus, to “Equip” with the most basic needs, to promote “Acceptance” and to “Restore” relationships in the community.

The program provides children going into foster, adoptive or relative placement with a 32-inch, wheeled duffle bag full of comforting essentials, including new pajamas, socks, underwear, pillows, pillow cases, blankets, toys, stuffed animals, crayons, pencils, pens and journals.

The program serves Clinton, Dubuque and Jackson counties in Iowa, and Carroll, Lee and Whiteside counties in Illinois.

The bags are for children ages 0-18 years old and are packed with supplies appropriate for their ages and genders.

These children, she noted, are all around us and need love and reassurance.

“Unless your world’s been impacted (by foster care), you probably don’t think about these kids,” Estilow shared. “But they are in your schools and in your city parks. We hope to shine some hope for these kids, and when they look back on their experiences someday, they can remember their communities tried to support them.”

The My G.E.A.R. founder and director said they have been fortunate to receive funding from a number of sources. The group has asked for churches to sponsor the program and have received grant money and private donations. One donation, given anonymously by a Clinton County resident, was for $15,000.

“We have several people who donate monthly,” she said. “Last year, instead of buying each other Christmas gifts, a family decided to donate money to a charity and we were chosen. We’ve had kids run lemonade stands, and people have garage sales and donate their proceeds to us. We really have an awesome community. People are great to us. We’ve never had to purchase a pillow case … they’re all handmade. We got a $1,000 check from the Round-Up at Randy’s Neighborhood Market, in DeWitt.”

People can donate via PayPal or Venmo on the program website,, or email Estilow at All the money donated stays to benefit local communities.

Running the My G.E.A.R. program is something Estilow does in addition to working as the recruiter and training coordinator for Four Oaks Family Connections.

According to its website, Four Oaks’ mission is to “recruit and retain nurturing and diverse foster and adoptive families to keep children safe from further trauma and assist them in their transition to permanency.”

She said the demand for more foster or respite families is bigger than ever.

“We are in great need throughout the whole state for more loving and stable homes,” Estilow shared. “This is happening. We need good, loving homes to support these children. There’s so much need; but, if we all team up together, it will all work out. We need to get as many people as possible involved in the adoption and foster care world.”


Story from Program aids foster children | Local News |

Nine adoptions took place at the Juvenile Justice Center in Cedar Rapids

by Nada Shamah

It was an emotional day at the Juvenile Justice Center in Cedar Rapids.

Nine children were adopted Thursday afternoon.

For Michelle and Tom Wood of Hiawatha, their wait of 703 days officially came to an end.

They adopted three siblings, two sisters and a brother, into their family.

The couple says they knew the moment they met the children, they were the ones.

The Wood’s knew the birth mother of the children, and had made a promise they intended to keep.

“I just want to make sure they’re always safe and loved. And for my aunt Donna that always asked me for years if I would take them. She’s passed away but, we were just happy that we were able to do it.”

The Woods spent years fostering and adopting. They say it’s difficult but well worth it.

Their children range from ages 15 months to 24-years-old.

They say they don’t have plans to adopt more, but if it’s meant to be it will be.

The event was sponsored by Four Oaks Foster & Adoptive Family Connections.

November is National Adoption Month.

During this time, organizations work to raise awareness for the need and importance of fostering and adopting.

Full article found on Nine adoptions took place at the Juvenile Justice Center | KGAN (

Four Oaks Foster and Adoptive Family Connections held annual adoption celebration at Scott County Courthouse

Published: Nov. 20, 2022 at 10:27 AM CST

DAVENPORT, Iowa. (KWQC) – Four Oaks Family Connections raised awareness at Scott County Courthouse today for the need for and importance of foster and adoptive families across the nation.

“Today is an amazing day, so national adoption month is in November, and so every year we celebrate with the court,” Christa Hafel, Four Oaks Family Connections Recruitment and Training manager said. “And we do a big adoption day, we try to get as many families as we can to complete their adoptions on adoption day, which is today.”

With smiling faces of parents and children everywhere, one local dad gives his take on why he comes to this celebration.

“Hearing the stories about the, you know, the past adoptions and families and how they came, you know, all the different routes that, that people have taken to get to this day, and it’s, it’s good to hear stories like that,” Ethan Owen said, Adopter of four boys. “And just to kind of know that you’re not, you’re not really any different.”

Besides enjoying stories and families company, Owen adds some things that are important for being a stand-up dad.

“Time, patience and things like that, and it really helps me focus on those kinds of things and try to pass on more now as they’re older,” Owen said. “And I feel like they understand more of what’s going on in adult life to kind of give them more better advice.”

This organization provides the tools and services needed for families interested and children in need.

“Every month we have adoptions and Four Oaks Family Connections takes great pride in training and preparing those families for reunification,” Hafel said. “And when that can’t happen, we absolutely love to support them in the adoption route. We also provide adoption support services to those families for forever, so they can have that service.”

The family connections event included area professionals and local families finalizing the adoption process.

Click the link to see the full video

Four Oaks Foster and Adoptive Family Connections held annual adoption celebration at Scott County Courthouse (