At twenty something Kelsey Ballard is on a mission to help kids as she and husband Matt became foster parents to nearly 100 children in four years.
On a beautiful spring morning, a soft spoken Kelsey Ballard talks quietly in her family room, the soothing sound of children playing outside.
It’s a sound she’s familiar with. It sounds like home.
Slowly, we uncover the story of how a childless couple, two 20-somethings, became foster parents to nearly 100 children in four years.
She grew up in Sterling, Ohio, a rural community about 30 miles southwest of Akron. The cherished baby of a family of five children, she has three sisters and a brother.
“Kelsey was a well-loved little sister,” Kara Stoller says. “I was so excited when she was born! My siblings and I took turns holding her, and we had to use a timer to keep it fair! She had a good personality. She enjoyed playing with others and by herself. She was happy and cute and a wonderful addition to our family!”
Her mom, “the sweetest person ever,” is a homemaker. Her father is a carpenter and an elder in their church.
“I was always such a tomboy. I just wanted to be an astronaut or a marine biologist or something like that… I played with baby dolls and barbies and stuff but I never wanted kids like my nieces want kids now. They’re like ‘I can’t wait to be a mom.” And one of my sisters was always like that but I was never like that.”
But she was also inspired by her parents who always put God first in their lives. She knew that often means being different.
“When we do that, we might do things that seem a little bit crazy to other people,” she says.
After graduating from high school, Kelsey earned an associates degree in surgical technology from the University of Akron and worked at the Cleveland Clinic.
She met her husband, Matt, while out with friends one evening. He was the server at their table. A little light hearted flirting, in which she wrote her number on the receipt, led to a first date.
“When I met Kelsey, I instantly could see her spark and love of life,” Matt says. “She has a wonderful heart and works so hard to help those in need. I think it was only three weeks before I was looking for engagement rings.”
“He was a Christian. I was a Christian,” Kelsey says. “He got along with my family. We just really clicked.”
Two years after that first date, in 2010, they married. Matt was finishing a degree in education at the University of Akron. Teaching jobs were scarce in Ohio when he graduated, so in 2012 the couple moved to Florida where Matt taught middle school and Kelsey worked at nearby hospitals.
It was there they began considering fostering.
“We never really had a desire to have our own biological children,” Kelsey says.
“Most young couples seem to dream of having their own children, but it seemed like God had given them a different dream,” Kelsey’s sister, Kara, observed.
Initially, they considered adopting internationally.
The idea began at Winter Jam, a Christian concert where the speakers had been adopted or sponsored by families in America.
“It was amazing to hear their stories and how lives had been changed forever because a family was willing to say yes,” Matt says. “We wanted to do what those people did and adopt a child from China. We looked into it in the coming months and saw just how real the need was for children right here in our community.”
They decided to try fostering first.
They were living in Sarasota, near one of Kelsey’s sisters who also fosters, when they began the process of becoming licensed foster parents with the YMCA Safe Children Coalition. The idea was to start out slow, with one child, and see how it worked for them, but reality burst onto the scene immediately.
“The very first day we got licensed we got our first kids,” Kelsey recalls.
The agency called at 10 o’clock that night. It was unexpected, and they weren’t prepared, but Matt and Kelsey said yes.
“We were freaking out because we obviously didn’t have any kids and we had nothing,” Kelsey recalls. “We had literally no clothes, no toys. I didn’t know what kids ate. I didn’t know anything.”
She called her sister, who has two children of her own in addition to fostering.
“She kind of calmed me down and walked me through it,” Kelsey says.
Her sister told her what they would need, what they may like to eat, and at midnight Kelsey was at Walmart buying sippy cups, underwear, and “random things I didn’t have.”
The children arrived at 3 a.m, dirty and wearing clothes that didn’t fit.
“It looked like they hadn’t bathed in a long time,” Kelsey remembers.
The two-year-old was sleeping, but the six-year-old was “very hyper.” He wanted to know if there were any kids to play with.
“He was ready to go,” Kelsey says.
She got them into the bathtub right away, washing their hair, getting them into clean clothes. She put them in a room together where they shared a bed that was close to the floor. By now, the excitement of a new place had them both wide awake. Finally, they went to sleep and slept late the next morning, giving Kelsey time to figure out what to do next.
“There was a lot to do,” she says. She had to take a couple of days off work to enroll the older brother in kindergarten and the younger in daycare. Fortunately, the agency they were working with paid for daycare and at work, her supervisor was wonderful.
“She was like ‘it’s okay. We’ll get it figured out. You’re doing a great thing.’ She was really good about that.”
For a week or two, the brothers were angels. Then, more reality.
The little one wouldn’t take naps. The older one was getting in fights every day at school. He actually ended up getting expelled from kindergarten.
Looking back, she analyzes the situation.
“They go through a honeymoon phase,” Kelsey explains. “Everything is just perfect and fine and everything.” Then they settle in and “their behaviors come out.”
It took about a month to get the hang of everything, to figure out all the times: nap times, mealtimes, bathtimes, bedtimes, and what time to wake up with enough time to be everywhere on time.
The boys were with Matt and Kelsey for three months before being placed with a grandmother. She doesn’t know what’s become of them. Some families keep up with you. Others, you never hear from again, she says.
“It was a really rough first case,” Kelsey recalls. “They’re not all like that, but for us, it was being thrown in the fire.”
If she had the experience of having children of her own, she thinks it may have been an easier start.
The boys were barely gone before they took in another set of siblings, a brother and sister, ages 3 and 4. Everything went more smoothly this time. She had a crib already, daycare in place, she knew what she was doing, and the children were better behaved. They were there for about three months.
A seven-year-old girl Kelsey met while the girl was a patient in her hospital was next. She stayed for about seven months. During that time, two more children came to live with them.
In 2016, Matt and Kelsey were considering moving back to Ohio to be closer to family. They planned to continue fostering there. They put their house on the market, and while she was going through some old emails from the agency, she found one about a place in Sarasota called Grammy’s House. It was a six-bedroom home the agency funded. They were looking for a couple to care for kids there.
It sounded interesting. Matt and Kelsey called the agency to talk about it. Their house sold quickly and they took the job at Grammy’s House, moving a couple of miles instead of 1,100.
It was an easy decision, she says. By this time, both she and Matt felt “very called” to be foster parents.
“We didn’t really have ties,” she explains. “We didn’t have kids to think about. We didn’t have jobs we couldn’t move… It was just too right there to ignore, right in front of our face. So we just went for it.”
Matt continued teaching, but Kelsey became a full time foster mom at Grammy’s.
She says it was a different, but good, experience. For two years, they cared for 76 kids, up to 12 at a time, there.
“We took everything,” she says, from two-month-old infants to 18-year-olds and everything in between. All ages and all genders. Kelsey says she learned a lot about fostering, and different parenting techniques, including trauma-informed care.
“You just learn a lot about things you don’t want to know about, she says. “Like sexual abuse, all kinds of abuse. It’s very eye-opening. You learn what these kids are going through, what they don’t have, what they need. You learn how to parent all kinds of different kids with different issues with different ages, and you just figure it out.”
A particularly tough case involved a violent 12-year-old. He wasn’t safe to be around other kids and had to be sent to a place for kids who need more specialized care.
Another nearly broke her heart.
He came to Grammy’s House at 10 months old and stayed about a year and a half. He took his first steps, said his first words, and potty trained with the Ballards. Then, with just 24 hours notice, Kelsey had to get him ready to go with family they’d never met.
“I was really close to his biological mom,” Kelsey says. “We were trying to help her get her kids back. She was doing so good and then she just misstepped and these kids were taken away to a cousin in Ohio.”
“I had to put him in his car seat that day and he was just screaming ‘mommy, mommy mommy!’ I felt like I was betraying him, putting him with these strangers, packing all his things in the van.”
“It was the hardest thing,” Kelsey says. “It might have been the hardest thing ever of fostering.”
The grief was consuming but there were still other kids in her care. Matt and her family were very supportive.
“My family kept reminding me that that love meant so much to him,” she says. “I guess in those influential parts of his life when he was little he just needed someone to love him the way that we did. My whole family loved him.”
Would she do it again?
“Yeah,” Kelsey whispers tearfully.
On the other hand, they met a fantastic 10-year-old named Devin. He was one of eight siblings who needed a home.
“They all went to family and for whatever reason he didn’t,” Kelsey says. “I always tell him I think God chose you to be with us. There’s no explanation for it.”
“He’s just an awesome kid,” Kelsey said. “They asked us pretty early on if we would consider adoption. It was definitely yes.”
“He’s been a blessing,” she says. “He’s just so helpful, so kind.”
He’s great with other foster kids because he knows what they’re going through, she explains.
“Everybody loves Devin. He’s easy going, kind, he’s such a treasure to have around with these other kids because he makes them feel so comfortable.”
At Grammy’s House, they fostered 76 kids. It was a unique experience.
“Not many people go through that.”
After two years, she and Matt were feeling burnt out and were ready for a change. Matt began looking online for other house parenting opportunities. They looked all over the country and had lots of offers. They fell in love with Christian City Children’s Village in Union City, just north of Fayette.
“The coolest part is one of the parents here, Jeanette Christensen, was a parent at Grammy’s before us,” Kelsey says. “When she moved out she was actually my mentor but I didn’t know that she moved here. When we interviewed for this job, they were telling us about the house parents here, this couple, that couple, the Christensen’s. ‘I was like wait a minute, Jeanette Christensen?’ We kind of felt like that might be a calling here to move us here as well because she was already here and she’d been my mentor.”
In June of 2018, Matt and Kelsey became house parents at Christian City, a licensed Safe Place agency serving runaway and homeless youth, ages 7 to 17, across metro Atlanta. Christian City Children’s Village is part of the National Safe Place network, providing immediate help and supportive resources for youth in need.
“These are usually kids who run away and don’t have a place to go,” Kelsey explains. “They’ll call us needing a place to stay. We decide whether this needs to be DFCS or whether we can mediate between the parents and them to get them back in their house or with a family member. We’ve taken in kids that we’ve sent to family members out of state or somewhere in state that’s farther away. We can work with them to get them a bus ticket or plane ticket or something.”
Matt and Kelsey visit schools around the area to spread the word about Safe Place. They talk to kids, handing out Safe Place bracelets which provide a number to text for help. They talk to school counselors and others who may see kids in crisis.
The first call they answered at Christian City came from a men’s homeless shelter in Atlanta, where many kids show up needing help.
“They know our number. We’ve picked up two or three girls from there.”
This girl was originally from South Carolina. She had moved with a boyfriend to Atlanta, where she thought she’d be able to get a job. Things quickly went south. He was abusive. She didn’t have anywhere to go.
She stayed with Matt and Kelsey and Devin at Christian City for about five days, during which time they got in touch with her grandfather, who was happy she was okay.
“We were able to got her a bus ticket back to S.C. We were able to reunite her with her family which was awesome.”
Other cases can be more difficult. Often parents don’t want their kids, but don’t want to relinquish control either.
Kids who come to Safe Place have a different attitude than many foster kids, Kelsey says. They’re thankful for a place to sleep, especially having their own bed. They’re thankful for basics, like towels and soap.
“They’re not fighting us like some foster kids would.”
Kids can only stay at Safe Place 21 days. During that time, Matt and Kelsey help them get their lives together. They take them shopping for clothes, socks, underwear. At the time of this writing, they have helped 20 kids who came to Christian City’s Safe Place.
“We just try to be as much of a family to them as we can be in the short amount of time,” Kelsey says.
Matt works with them on finding colleges they can get accepted into or helps them look for jobs so they can provide for themselves. They work on budgets. They share the gospel with them.
“You have such a short amount of time to get through to them,” Kelsey explains. “It’s not a normal life. You want to provide for them and meet their needs but … you just have to intervene. Get through to them. Tell them this is how it is: ‘You need to get your life together, find a school, find a job’ as opposed to being relaxed and having this normal life… We have to help them.”
“Kelsey’s heart is ginormous!” declares Jeanette Christensen, the former mentor who became a colleague. “She has empathy for every Safe Place kid she takes in. She advocates for them and really takes their hardships to heart.”
Kelsey misses some aspects of traditional fostering but enjoys the work at Safe Place.
“Both are helping. Both are needed.”
Both are challenging and the emotional toll is real.
Matt and Kelsey take care of themselves by making time for things they enjoy. He likes video games, hiking, and playing sports. Kelsey enjoys reading and longboarding. At Safe Place, they get nine consecutive days off every month, which she says is a tremendous help in maintaining balance.
“When we began fostering, we didn’t know what to expect, like most people,” Matt says. “The will was there, but there were many difficult times that beat her down. She has overcome the grief of many little ones taken with 24 hours’ notice when she was the only mom they’d ever known. She has fought back the tears and cheered children up, as they wanted to share their stories of terrible abuse and neglect for the first time in their lives. The challenges were many. Now I see a woman that can roll with any punch and can get right to the heart of her mission, which is loving on these children the best way she can.”
Kelsey talks about the rewards, like seeing kids blossom and learning to love like she never imagined. She and Matt have a son they never would have had, and they’re working on adopting a second son, a kid who made a complete turn around under their care in Florida. It could happen as early as this summer.
“We’re hoping that this is his break, that he finally gets a home.”
Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand.
“They say ‘I couldn’t do that. You guys are crazy for having 12 kids at a time or whatever.’ It does seem a little crazy.”
But it’s also their passion.
“Helping kids – that’s something we’re called as Christians to do,” Kelsey says. The Bible says to care for orphans, she notes.
“That’s why I do it. I want to be obedient to God, but I also have that passion thankfully, and I have the ability to do it so why not? We’re young. We’re healthy. We don’t have our own biological kids. We have Devin to help us. Why not?”
“I look back and I just think it’s so funny that I never had this burning desire to have all these children and now I’ve had more kids than any of my sisters.”
“I am so proud of them,” sister Kara says. “Kelsey’s journey of foster parenting has stirred questions in my own mind of, ‘could I do this someday?’ It is very touching and inspiring to watch this kind of unconditional love.”
Perhaps you’re reading this and also thinking, “could I do that?”
Kelsey believes you can. She says people would be surprised at what they can do.
“Just try it at least,” she says. “No one says you have to continue to do it if it’s not for you… You can always think yourself out of something, you know, but there’s just so much need everywhere. There’s so much need.”
“If you don’t like it then help another foster family out. They can always use clothes, money food, or meals.”
Kelsey stresses that superhuman sainthood is not a requirement.
“I’m just like everyone else,” she says. “It’s not because I’m better than anyone else or different than anyone else. It’s just that I said yes.”
It takes some pretty refined organizational skills to care for up to 12 kids at a time. Kelsey says she keeps meals simple as possible, providing comfort foods and meals everyone will like. This recipe, from her own mother, is a favorite. Kelsey’s recipe for Spaghetti Pizza.
About Safe Place
Christian City Children’s Village is a licensed Safe Place agency for runaway and homeless youth across metro Atlanta.
They serve a large part of the metro area through a partnership with QuikTrip gas stations, YMCAs, and some fire stations and law enforcement departments in the following counties: Fulton, Douglas, Carroll, Fayette, Coweta, DeKalb, and Cobb. Youth can walk into a location where they see the yellow Safe Place signage and text for help. They can text the word “safe” and their current address to 4HELP (44357) or call 770-964-3301 for immediate assistance.
Matt and Kelsey Ballard are full-time house parents and Safe Place Advocates & Crisis Support for the Safe Place Runaway and Homeless Youth Program at Christian City, a program that rescues youth from the perils of living on the streets. The Ballards live at the Crisis Intervention Cottage on the campus of Christian City Children’s Village, where youth who come there through the Safe Place Program live.
Youth can remain in the Safe Place Program up to 21 days as Safe Place advocates and guardians work to identify permanency options that will hopefully result in the youth being less likely to end up on the streets again. If reunification does not appear to be a healthy option, other family placements are considered or they may be placed in the Children’s Village Residential program. If abuse is alleged or family refuses to cooperate, then a report is made to DFCS.
The National Safe Place Network provides access to immediate help and supportive resources for youth in need. Through the National Safe Place program, thousands of young people are educated each year about the dangers of running away or trying to resolve difficult and threatening situations on their own.
As a community initiative, the program designates schools, fire stations, libraries, and other youth-friendly organizations as Safe Place locations, which display the yellow and black sign.
According to a recent National Safe Place annual report, up to 2.8 million teens run away from home each year. More than 50% report that their parents told them to leave or knew they were leaving. Since its inception in 1983, Safe Place has grown to serve 1,500 communities across the U.S. through 140 youth-serving agencies in 39 states and the District of Columbia.
Safe Place is one of four Children & Family Programs at Christian City. The other three are: Children’s Village Residential Program, Crossroads Foster Care & Adoption Program, Thrive Graduate Transition Program.
For more about the National Safe Place Network, visit nationalsafeplace.org/why-do-communities-need-safe-place
More info about Christian City Children & Family Programs may be found at /christiancity.org/children-services-overview/