Get to Know Your Recruiter: Merle Bowers

Could you briefly explain the work you do at Cornerstones of Care for those who might not be familiar with it?

Initially, I was hired as a Resource Family Advocate. I worked with foster families in licensing and helped them with any issues, and I was the person in the agency looking out for their interests.

Now, as a Resource Family Development Recruiter in Kansas, I try to go out and find and gather leads. My strategy for finding foster parents has been asking people for their “four.” Who are your four people who know where to find foster parents? And then those four find four more and it builds from there.

When I get the leads, I walk them through getting signed up for training, answer any questions they might have before they get licensed, and hand them off to an advocate. Then, one of our three advocates works with them and gets them licensed.

I do like to say, comparing notes to other foster care agencies, Cornerstones of Care does it right. We do many things for the families that I understand other agencies don’t, and we have a very supportive team.

Some agencies hand foster families a stack of forms and say, “Fill these out, and we’ll talk in a couple of months,” and you can’t do that to people.

I don’t sugarcoat it. I tell families right from the start that there is a bit of paperwork involved, but we want you on the team, so we’ll help you get the paperwork done.

What does a typical day at work look like for you?

When I have one, I’ll let you know. [laughs]

Some days, it seems like so much that I just have to pick a place to start. I try to reach out to different leads. Somebody on the team might say you need to call this agency or that agency. I reach out to people who have filled out our interest form and try to get them started on the process.

Sometimes, I go in and cold call a business or ask if I can put brochures out. They often say, “I love the work you do; we appreciate that,” but it’s really about trying to take it to the next step.

I’ve done recruiting in sales-type work before, so I’m aware that sometimes you have to ask people seven times and that you’ll get seven nos before any yeses.

The families are out there; it’s just my job to find them.

Anyone who knows you knows that you’ll go to great lengths to recruit foster parents – from attending local parades to making yourself available at odd hours to help answer a prospective foster parent’s question. Why is this work so important to you?

You’ve heard the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” It’s an old African phrase, and my minister used to say it a lot.

I feel like if we all took that attitude, we could really help support these kids. I’m here to help these kids.

Our three kids were adopted, so I have a personal connection to the work, too.

Our daughter is white, and our two boys are mixed-race. Our youngest, Harry, passed away from a gunshot accident shortly after I started working here.

It was really hard seeing how Harry was treated at school because of his race. We live in a semi-rural neighborhood. He would go out walking with his friends, who were all white, and when the cop or sheriff deputy pulled along, he was the one they would stop, and they’d ask him, “What are you doing here?”

When the boys had challenges, you could tell the friends who would understand and those who didn’t get it. Some friends would say to me, “Can’t he just pull himself up by the bootstraps? Can’t he just deal with it?” and I would tell them, “I assume you don’t understand what a black kid goes through at school.” You start seeing things differently.

That’s part of what’s moved me.

What are one or two things that people misunderstand about foster care?

The biggest thing I learned coming in is that the goal of foster care is to reunite the child with Mom and Dad.

Everybody is on that team – the advocate, the foster parents, the caseworker for the child, and the team in the office. We’re all there to get those kids back with their folks and siblings. That’s key.

Sometimes, we hold an icebreaker meeting where you bring the foster parents in to meet with the birth parents. The idea with these meetings is to have the foster parents convey to the biological parents that “I’m not here to take your kid. I’m here to care for them while you deal with your issues.”

If we can’t reunite them with the parents, we try to find relatives or kin to care for the kids. We want to keep those youth with family members whenever possible and have the foster parents there if we can’t get them with relatives. Those are probably the biggest misconceptions.

What do you hope that foster parents take away from their conversations and interactions with you?

You’re stepping up to take a very important job, and because it’s such an important job, we can’t just take anybody. That’s why we have to make sure you’re trained, and your house is in order.

The fact that you stepped up and have that desire, we can help you through the training; we can help you get your house in order.

And we need you to understand that you’re not here to change the kid. You’re going to take these kids as they are. That does mean you let them run roughshod over your house but pick your battles.

What’s your pitch? Why do you think people should choose to become foster parents?

My elevator pitch is: who do you know?

We’re looking for people who will take teenagers. We’re looking for people who will take them in, not be judgmental, and give them unconditional love. Who do you know that you think will be good at that?

I like to talk about extreme parenting. We love to talk about extreme sports – we’ll applaud the guy who runs the 100-mile race or repels down the Empire State Building. We want the people who can be extreme parents – the ones who are willing to take in a child who might have drug issues or mental health issues and just love them.

One of my best ones was an NRKIN (non-related kin). She was working her way up in a construction company and already had three other kids. Her daughter knew this kid through Instagram and said, “Mom, he needs a place to stay.”

The only other option was to put him in foster care. It was tough; she did everything she had to do.

When it’s NRKIN, they haven’t been sitting there thinking about this. This kid came over on Monday night, and by Wednesday, she decided to take him in. Contrast that with traditional foster families that have been thinking about this for months. 

My pitch is – who do you know that would have the heart to take in a child?

Last question. It’s baseball season, and you seem like a big fan. How did you become such a baseball fanatic and how do you keep up with the hobby during the year?

I really became a Royals fan the year they won the series in 1985. I followed them a bit back when I was in high school, and they started getting into the playoffs. The Royals I grew up with were always pretty good.

The first baseball game I watched was the last time the Kansas City Athletics played before they moved to Oakland. [Note: The Kansas City Athletics played their last game on October 1, 1967.]

I had an uncle that was big into baseball. He played amateur ball and probably could have made it into the majors with the right coaching. I’ve just always liked it.

Even before I came to Cornerstones of Care, I started getting an interest in the Negro Leagues and found this company that made vintage gear and caps.

This one is the Bismark Churchills – the team Satchel Page played for. [proudly puts on the baseball cap]

This is kind of becoming my brand. I’m the guy with the ball caps. You’ve gotta have a whatsit.

I wanna be approachable and for people to be comfortable around me. I want to get attention and then turn that into, in this case, recruiting foster parents.

Have a question for Merle? Email him directly or fill out our foster care interest form to get started on your journey to licensure today.