OPELIKA, Ala. (AP) — They weren’t yet ready to be foster parents, but they were more than ready to help foster kids.
That’s when Micah and Blake Melnick of Opelika knew they were called to start a ministry that supports foster families in the community.
Today, that ministry is BigHouse Foundation. In the past 13 years or so, it has served about 20,000 foster kids.
“We have seen really great families that have had kids that have a really hard time, and they have had so much trauma and they’re going to struggle,” said Micah, the ministry’s executive director, “so we at BigHouse just try to walk alongside them during all of that.”
When the Melnicks married in 2007, they were both students at the University of Alabama, with Blake in graduate school and Micah working toward an undergraduate degree.
Meanwhile, Micah’s parents, Michael and Angie Brown of Opelika, became foster parents for the first time. Blake’s parents, Michael and Ellen Melnick, also of Opelika, had been foster parents before he was born and adopted two children.
Micah said she and Blake got to know her parents’ foster children and were “immersed into the world of foster care.”
“While we felt we were really called and obligated and wanted to be involved and help, we didn’t feel like at that time we could be foster parents,” Micah said, “and there just wasn’t really a good avenue otherwise to support kids in foster care if you couldn’t be a foster parent.”
In 2009, BigHouse was created. It started with a clothes closet in Opelika, in some donated office space downtown.
Micah and Blake asked their college friends to clean out their closets and their siblings’ closets over Thanksgiving break and donate items they didn’t want. Both still in school, they would operate the closet during breaks, and Micah’s mother would manage it when they had to return to Tuscaloosa.
After graduation, Micah and Blake moved back to Opelika so Blake could earn his Ph.D. at Auburn University, where he now teaches as a lecturer on aerospace engineering. They were ready to help BigHouse grow.
Blake, now 37, said that when his parents started fostering, there weren’t any organizations like BigHouse and sometimes children were “dropped off in nothing but diapers and had nothing with them.”
He saw how people give hand-me-downs to kids in foster care, and “sometimes it doesn’t make them feel good.”
The BigHouse clothes closet was created to respond to this need, “in a way that was special and fun.”
Micah, now 35, said the goal of BigHouse is to make the kids feel valued and important. At the clothes closet, she said, foster children and families should feel like they’re going shopping, instead of looking through trash bags of donated items.
“We want the best experience for these children in foster care,” Blake said. “We want to create as good as an experience as they can have.”
The Melnicks chose the name BigHouse after an Audio Adrenaline song about Heaven called “Big House.”
Micah said she and her siblings grew up loving that song. When her parents started fostering, the kids would beg them to play the “Big House” song in the car.
“It says that Heaven is a big, big house with lots and lots of room,” Micah said, “a big, big table with lots and lots of food, a big, big yard where we can play football, a big, big house — it’s my Father’s house.
“There’s a specific line in there and it says, ‘I don’t know if you have a mom or dad or place you can call home, but in Heaven, you’ll have all that.’”
Micah said the song “resonated” with them because they wanted to create a community on Earth that not only points to Heaven, is gospel-focused and represents faith in Jesus, but also one that gives the kids a feeling of belonging.
Besides providing resources, Micah said, BigHouse also aims to build relationships with the kids and their families and to create a support system through “the good and the bad things” they face.
“The families that we serve, they’re like our heroes,” Micah said. “They’re doing really hard work, and it’s such a great ministry that they’re doing in their homes.
“Parenting is hard in general. Parenting someone else’s children is difficult, and then throwing in the government telling you what to do, it’s just a very unique situation.”
BigHouse hosts several events throughout the year including a prom dress event called Glitz, Glam and Gowns; a swimsuit and towel drive; a beach retreat; a back-to-school bash that provides kids with school supplies; and a Santa’s workshop shopping event.
Micah said the organization has long provided resources statewide. But as more nonprofits have been established throughout the state to assist foster families, the Melnicks have recently narrowed their focus on East Alabama, which has about 500 foster kids and 200 foster families.
As for the 20,000 foster kids they’ve supported, BigHouse continues to serve the children after they are adopted, and Blake said he and Micah keep in touch with children when they become adults.
The Melnicks, who have three children of their own, are currently in the process of building what they call the BigHouse Retreat, and hope it will be completed in 2023. It will be their new official location and will allow the organization to do and host everything on site.
“Our goal for that space is for it to be a place that really gives the kids a home base that so many of them don’t have,” Micah said.
The new building will be 8,000 square feet on 9 acres of land and will include the boutique, offices and event space, plus a playroom, family room, kitchen, porches and a big playground.
“We got to design and build from the ground up exactly how we need it and how we want it,” Blake said.
The Melnicks said this building will be one of the first of its kind, and they hope other nonprofit foster care organizations will be inspired to build something similar in their communities.
BigHouse is also gearing up for a fundraiser called The Hustle, where individuals sign up for a challenge to run, walk, cycle or swim a certain distance during the month of May. It costs $35 and participants will receive a t-shirt.
To sign up go to ourbighouse.org/bighouse-hustle. The deadline to sign up is May 1.