Reprinted from The Lutheran Spring 2013 issue

In less than eight years, Julie Swanson has extended Lutheran Family Services of Virginia from a foster care agency with three schools for children with disabilities to a broad statewide network offering adoption, developmental and mental health services for children and adults, grief and geriatric support and more in an organization with a $22 million budget and 400 employees.

“The staff has done the work of providing services and meeting needs,” said Swanson, LFS president and chief executive officer. After a career of 35 years in Lutheran social services from Florida to Colorado to Virginia in 2005, she has a keen sense of what is needed and what a church-based organization can do about it.

A North Dakota native, Swanson has a 35-year career in Lutheran social services, leading from the Virgin Island and Florida to Colorado and then to Virginia in 2005. She has a keen sense of what is needed and what a church-based organization can do about it. Under her leadership, LFS has enlarged its clientele from children to the whole family.

As LFS marks the 125th anniversary of its founding this year, a recent branding study looked for words to describe its mission. “Lutheran” and “family” were important but the organization selected “promise, restored.”

“The promise is to restore well-being and abundance to children and their families,” Swanson said.

The Rev. W. S. McClanahan started South View Orphan Home in north RoanokeCounty in 1888 and this evolved into Lutheran Children’s Home of the South in Salem and later Lutheran Children’s Home. This “strength of what we came from—the promise for service—is the same today,” Swanson said.

In her work, she has strong backing from the LFS board. Robin Baliles, board chair and a Charlottesville marketing, public relations and resource development consultant, had this to say about the president, “LFSVA is fortunate to have Julie Swanson as its CEO. She is the true embodiment of a servant leader: passionate about our mission and the people we serve; a great steward of the organization’s resources, both human and financial; and, a woman with a powerful work ethic who has lived her life, personally and professionally, in service to those who are least able to care for themselves.”

LFS services

The agency’s programs are organized in five divisions operating in more than 15 cities and towns, administered from offices on Electric Road in Southwest Roanoke County. They are adoption and foster care, community-based, developmental, educational and older adult and grief services. Ray Ratke, program vice president and former deputy commissioner in the State Behavior Health Department, is in charge of programs from a Richmond office.

A major expansion came a year ago when LFS acquired the Lamano Agency of Bedford, an organization providing programs for adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, mainly in western Virginia. A door opened when the “for-profit agency with a non-profit heart” became available, Swanson said. This enabled LFS “to create a wider community of care.”

Building on its Minnick Schools’ facilities for children with disabilities, LFS is “committed to helping individuals live fulfilling lives in their preferred community settings”  through the new developmental services division, she said. [This enabled LFS] to create a wider community of care.

Among the programs it offers adults with disabilities are group homes, day support, respite care, sponsored residential services and in-home support in Bedford, Danville, Martinsville, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Roanoke, Fredericksburg, Richmond and Norfolk/Virginia Beach.

The adoption and foster care division is close to Swanson’s heart because she and her husband, Bruce, have three adopted children, including a daughter with cerebral palsy who had “a great quality of life” in a group home in Minnesota. The emphasis has shifted from foster care to adoption as LFS helps children find permanence with a family. “We are asking parents to be flexible and open to opportunities” for adoption, she said.

When Swanson came to LFS, about 100 children were in foster case but that number is down to 50 or 60 a year now. Meanwhile, the number of LFS-sponsored adoptions has increased from 10 to about 40 a year.

But it’s hard to find families who will adopt older children. Utilizing social media, LFS promotes adoption with messages like one for Shania: “Sweet and friendly Shania wants a family more than anything. Shania would like a mom, dad and sisters. She is very energetic and enjoys singing, riding bikes and playing with Barbie dolls. With structure, consistency and a patient family who will support her educational and emotional needs, Shania will reach full potential.”

The Minnick Schools, named for the late Dr. M. L. Minnick, longtime pastor of College Lutheran and Synod secretary, offer educational, behavioral and vocational services. They partner with more than 30 public school divisions with a goal of returning children to public school setting.

The main school is located in northern Roanoke County. A second Roanoke branch has opened in south RoanokeCounty and others are at Harrisonburg, Wytheville and Wise, serving a total of 160 children.

This highly skilled challenging service requires commitment. The schools have a ratio of one teacher for three children.

Essential Pieces, a community-based LFS service for parents of children with autism in Winchester, Richmond, Hampton and Roanoke. This program connects these parents in evening meetings with professionals who tell them about such local resources as occupational and physical therapy, vocational rehabilitation, advocacy in schools, diet, music and horsemanship. Named for pieces of a puzzle, it’s putting pieces together for the sake of children.

For older adults

LFS is moving into older adult and geriatric services, a field where it may work as a partner with Virginia Lutheran Homes in some areas, Swanson said. They work with seniors and caregivers to manage life changes through geriatric care management, mental health counseling and caregiver support in homes or communities. “We cannot build enough housing” for seniors, she said.

Support is also offered for persons grieving over a death, separation or divorce, job loss or suicide.

LFS is using a $1.4-million bequest by Eleanor Smelser, formerly of Emmanuel (Woodstock), and St. Paul (Strasburg) Lutheran churches to support services for older adults. It’s called Eleanor’s Fund.

When the Lutheran Council of Tidewater closed, LFS took over administration of the Human Warmth Fund, providing emergency assistance with heating bills in the Tidewater area.  Another LFS ministry is disaster response, helping churches and individuals preparing for tornados, hurricanes or storms.

Swanson sums it up with two key questions for LFS:  How do we care for each other?  How do we use the church to provide care?

By George Kegley

Caption: Julie Swanson with Khamani Jones in the kitchen at the Starkey Station vocational classroom, a part of the Minnick School in Roanoke.