Damen and Kristi Woolsey visit with SD Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden (at far right) during the Stronger Families Together celebration event in Pierre, SD on Aug. 17, 2022.

Stronger Families Initiative Celebrates One Year

Belle Fourche News

Belle Fourche couple recognized for founding work

PIERRE – The office of Gov. Kristi Noem recognized a Belle Fourche couple last week for the work they did in helping organize and lead the success of the first year of the state’s Stronger Families Together (SFT) program.

At a one-year celebration event held at the Ramkota Convention Center in Pierre, Damen and Kirsti Woolsey were acknowledged for establishing South Dakota Kids Belong which led to Gov. Noem’s initiative.

“Last year I worked with South Dakota Kids Belong and the Dept. of Social Services to launch a transformational recruitment effort to get more families involved in foster care,” Gov. Noem told the crowd. “We called that effort Stronger Families Together. And it had the ambitious goal to recruit 300 foster families a year for four years. Well, one-year later we’ve met that goal. We have successfully recruited those 300 foster families.”
It’s the first time in state history that South Dakota has added more than 300 licensed foster families in a single year.

“When we first set the goal, I was split. There was the doubting Thomas in my mind that wondered if we could but, in my heart, I believed it would happen,” Pastor Damen Woolsey told the Beacon.

Woolsey is the Ex. Director of South Dakota Kids Belong and maintains an office at the Connection Church in Belle Fourche.

South Dakota Kids Belong Ex. Director Damen Woolsey of Belle Fourche thanks supporters for helping the Stronger Families Together initiative reach its year-one goal of adding 300 new foster parents statewide. The realization of the goal represents a record single year recruitment for the state of South Dakota.

“For me it’s all about seeing what God did working through his people,” he said. “The more we work together the more the kids win.”
The Woolsey’s began their work with SD Kids Belong in 2018 out of their Belle Fourche home. During their first big fundraising gala in 2019 they invited Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden who attended with his wife Sandy. The Lt. Governor then relayed the story of what the Woolsey’s were doing to newly elected Gov. Kristi Noem.
“When I first talked to the governor about it, I knew it was something that was close to her heart,” Lt. Gov. Rhoden told the Beacon. “She could see the vision for what it could lead to. I knew this public-private partnership would be a match made in heaven.”

At the time, in mid-2019, Gov. Noem had just appointed Laurie Gill as Secretary of the SD Dept. of Social Services (DSS). Gill says that the Lt. Governor had asked her to begin talking with a few people about forming a partnership. According to Gill the Governor was already working on an initiative related to foster care and adoption. It was about that time, she says, when the two worlds just came together.

“We met and we sat down with the Woolsey’s, and we began moving towards creating a new initiative,” Sec. Gill told the Beacon. “Our staff put their heads together and started the layout and the structure that included a partnership and we realized that South Dakota Kids Belong was part of America’s Kids Belong which actually had a structure that was being used in other states. So we started to become familiar with it and the rest is history.”

Brian Mavis, co-founder of America’s Kids Belong (AKB), flew into Pierre from Colorado to take part in the event and express his appreciation to state leaders for their cooperation. Mavis says that in each state where AKB operates they take an approach that tries to bring together groups that will have the biggest impact.

“We use this idea of having a convening authority, which is somebody who can bring everybody together,” Mavis told the Beacon. “We have that here in South Dakota with Gov. Noem and Sec. Gill. By having their stamp of approval, it really gives us a chance to make a lot more progress than we normally would. It’s like the geese flying in formation analogy. They can get everybody to come together and go further faster.”

Mavis says that SFT was extremely committed to their goals and kept their eye on the numbers, which he called “very meaningful goals.”

“And that’s why I’m here to say thank you,” Mavis said.

Mavis called the first-year results of the campaign “amazing” considering the nation-wide COVID pandemic in 2020 and 2021. This type of success was unique to AKB during that time and Mavis credits the determination of the SFT team and the Woolsey’s.

“Damen and Kristi are just amazing people,” he said. “They are people of deep character. I think their two gifts are grit and grace. They just go in with love and when they hit an obstacle they figure out another way to get around it. I love them.”

“The Woolsey’s are very passionate about running South Dakota Kids Belong,” Sec. Gill said. “And without a passionate champion from the private sector that is out there meeting with the faith-based communities and businesses in ways that maybe government can’t do, we could not fill that side of the need.”

Gill said the goal of 300 families was a stretch, but they wanted to be challenged. She said the state felt it had just enough resources to accommodate that many new foster families. And while the state has the resources for the licensing, process and reimbursement parts, it’s only one piece of a bigger picture in making SFT a success.

“Because this whole initiative is a three-legged stool,” she said. “It’s bringing together government, faith-based organizations and businesses. And so the Woolsey’s have a very important role in bringing together the churches and faith-based organizations and getting out there and meeting with the businesses as well.”

In the first year SD Kids Belong signed up 71 businesses state-wide to the AKB-engineered app Foster Friendly. Business that sign up to be a part of the program offer discounts on good and services to foster families. program offer discounts on good and services to foster families.

There were 31 churches statewide that have become a part of the SFT network and in those churches 13 wrap-around teams have been established. Wrap-around teams are made up of volunteers who donate food, baby supplies and household goods along with their time. Wrap team members often serve through babysitting, providing foster parents with a night out, mowing lawns, changing vehicle oil, and generally using their skills and abilities to support the needs of foster families.

Stronger Families Together placed special emphasis on the Native American community. In the past year, working with SD Dept. of Tribal Relations Sec. David Flute, they set a goal to increase the number of native foster families. In the past 12 months that number increased by a record 25%.

Damen and Kristi Woolsey visit with SD Lt. Gov. Larry Rhoden (at far right) during the Stronger Families Together celebration event in Pierre, SD, on Aug. 17, 2022.

“We are very pleased about that,” Sec. Gill said. “We do believe that it is best, if possible, that we keep a Native American foster child as close to its home, family, culture and traditions as possible and that is why it is such an important initiative.”

Not only has the campaign created recruiting records of new foster families it has also had a positive impact on the retention of current foster families. And when it comes to the Rapid City area, which has been an area of focus, for the first time in decades there are more than 100 foster families in the city. The Woolsey’s have added a dedicated employee to work in the Rapid City area.

“And we hope to grow a lot from there,” Mavis said. “In its first year it has made a net positive impact.”

As year two begins Woolsey knows the challenge will be to keep the momentum going. And SDKB plans to do that beginning close to home.

“If you’re a Belle Fourche business owner go to StrongerFamiliesTogether.com and look for how to get involved as a business. If you’re a church leader look for what you can do as a congregation to help existing foster and adoptive parents,” Woolsey said. “Even if you’re a mayor, raise some awareness about what’s going on at a local level. If you know foster or adoptive parents do something tangible with them to show them that you love them and care for them.”

“To see how they’ve built this from the ground up into the public-private partnership that it is today is pretty exciting,” Lt. Gov. Rhoden said. “I can’t wait to see where we go from here.”