AUSTIN (KXAN) — For Stacy Johnson, founder of Central Texas Table of Grace, foster care advocacy is more than a job: From the age of 2 until her legal emancipation at 16, Johnson bounced between foster families and group homes. Now, she’s channeling her experiences growing up in the foster care system into helping children rise above the negative connotations of what it means to be a foster child.

“I ended up making it and being very successful — mostly due to mentors, usually my bosses at my jobs, and ended up being successful in how to have a really great, successful life despite the hardships,” she said. “And so I really want to be able to show my kids that there’s life after trauma and abuse and that they can do it too.”

Spikes in demand

There are 470 children in foster care within Travis County and 99 children in Williamson County, according to April data from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Within the state of Texas, nearly 16,000 children are living in foster care as of April, per DFPS’s reporting.

And, the coronavirus pandemic has had a substantial impact on the number of children entering the foster care system, said Kristin Finan, co-founder, president and CEO of Carrying Hope.

With spiked unemployment levels and resulting financial strains, many families surrender their children due to an inability to care for them. Concurrently, a lawsuit against the state of Texas for its foster care system resulted in case workers shutting down shelters and residential facilities for mismanagement and not properly meeting children's needs, limiting resources.

"Parents couldn't afford rent for their kiddos. And it also just added a lot of stress between homes that resulted in children being removed from unsafe environments," she said. "We saw needs skyrocket, while we also basically had to shut down our office."

As a foster parent herself, Finan said the mission of Carrying Hope is tailored to providing foster children with the things they need -- and the comfort they deserve -- as they relocate to a new environment. For more than five years, Carrying Hope has been distributing hope packs to foster children, which feature clothes, books and toys, sanitary products, diapers and formulas, depending on the child's age.

"It's basically like, you know, everything they need for that first 48 hours so a foster parent can focus on bonding with the frightened child in their house instead of rushing out to Walmart as soon as they get there for diapers and wipes and for baby's formula or for kid's new clothes for school the next day, things like that," said Mauri Elbel, co-founder and vice president of Carrying Hope.

A new chapter

While the pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for an already embattled industry, both Central Texas Table of Grace and Carrying Hope are embarking on new journeys as nonprofits. Carrying Hope is poised to launch a new shelter later this year, as well as continue its statewide expansion with its Houston branch.

Last year, Carrying Hope compiled 4,000 Hope Packs for children entering foster care. This year, the nonprofit is on track to donate 5,000 backpacks to children, with 200 packs coming via a partnership with KXAN's newsroom. As part of the company's annual Founder's Day celebration, KXAN staff also assisted with a cleanup project at Carrying Hope's property outside Austin for incoming foster kids.

Johnson said Central Texas Table of Grace is in the process of launching a tiny homes village in Round Rock as part of CTTG's Grace365 program, which services those who've aged out of foster care.

She said she was inspired by the work Mobile Loaves & Fishes is doing within its tiny villages concept, established to service those experiencing homelessness. The village would establish a sense of community for foster kids to gather and have a place to stay around the holidays, she said.

"It's very rewarding because it's not always the adversity that's so terrible: It's the fact that people are alone through adversity. And when they have somebody there for them, it makes it so much easier to get through those hardships."

Stacy johnson, founder, central texas table of grace

Johnson added she hopes to relocate the foster shelter onto a portion of the tiny villages property. Grace365 also provides apartment leases for individuals who have aged out of the system to help them maintain shelter and continue on with their successes.

'My whole life has come full circle'

As both nonprofits have grown since their founding, Johnson, Finan and Elbel each said their missions have paid off in dividends. Reflecting on her own experience in foster care, Johnson said her life -- and her life's work through Central Texas Table of Grace -- have manifested into a "full circle" moment.

"It's like my whole life has come full circle. I mean, there was even the therapist that really helped me when I lived in a group home when I was this day, I still talk to him. I get to talk to him about my kids and he was the one helping me through my hardships," she said. "And it's just like, he was in my life for six months, but he changed the trajectory of my entire life. And I want to be that for them. And I want my staff to be that for these kids."

For Finan, Carrying Hope's impact is not only external, but found within her own home. When Carrying Hope first started, she and Elbel said they would frequently see children show up at their doorsteps with nothing, save for a dirty diaper and a trash bag with a few posessions.

But, when Finan was first placed with her now-adopted daughter, she arrived with a Hope Pack.

"Being able to see the change that we've made and the way that she got so much joy out of that -- she still sleeps with her blanket that was in her Hope Pack every night," she said, adding: "And so for me, getting to see that and knowing that most of the children who are coming into care now are having that experience, as opposed to showing up with nothing, has meant everything to me."