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Children growing up in foster care, sadly, often find it a confusing and tumultuous existence. On top of the difficult circumstances that lead to their separation from their families, they’re thrust into a new environment and a world of uncertainty. This is the unfortunate reality for the nearly 400,000 children in foster care in the United States today, but community collaboration can make a difference for these children. 

Thirteen years ago, motivated by the belief that every child is valuable well beyond birth and regardless of their circumstances, we asked guardians, attorneys and other foster care advocates where the biggest needs were for foster children. Again and again, the response we heard was clothing. In fact, it is such a big need that children often come into a foster home with only the clothes on their backs. 

So using space in our church, we collected and sorted clothes with the goal of serving the 181 teenage girls in Florida’s Hillsborough County foster system at that time, and incorporating that number into our name, Loft 181 was established.  

Loft 181

What started as a small effort run off a ping pong table in a church loft now serves more than 400 girls a year. Today, in our standalone boutique-style store, teen girls in foster care or recovering from human trafficking can select clothes, shoes, accessories and other personal items in a unique shopping experience. And at Loft 181, you won’t find a cash register in sight because everything in the store is free to the girls who visit and for as often as they need to visit. 

But these visits are not just about giving the girls clothes and other material items. It is also about giving them an experience that shows them how precious and valuable they are in God’s eyes. 

At each appointment girls also have the opportunity to visit our gospel room where they can fill out a prayer request form and enjoy some fresh fruit or homemade pastries, rare treats for girls who have too often not enjoyed many of life’s small pleasures. We hope that each girl who visits Loft 181 leaves not only feeling loved and cared for but also having hope in the future and the plan God has for her.  

First started over a decade ago by my sister-in-law, it is now my distinct honor to manage this store and continue the effort made possible by an entire community coming together to make a difference. Today, Loft 181 is a ministry of One More Child, a global organization serving foster children, trafficking survivors and other vulnerable children and families. 

Years ago, when we outgrew our original loft space, a church member graciously offered her home as a base of operation. Then, when we outgrew that space, donors from the larger community helped raise funds to buy our commercial lot and refurbish the building.  

And we couldn’t operate without the help of volunteers who contribute time sorting through donations, cleaning the store, hosting client appointments and baking the fresh goods we offer them. Hundreds of volunteers from multiple churches provide more than 1,000 hours each year amplifying Loft 181’s impact. 

Volunteers go so much further than simply helping girls with clothes. They also keep up with girls as they revisit the store, pray for them regularly and help meet other needs for foster families. Volunteers have even been inspired to organize special events, like the surprise sweet 16 party we threw for one girl who had never had a birthday party before.  

These relationships between volunteers and girls on their healing journey can also turn into deep bonds. One client we served first came to us in a rough place having been abandoned and abused. Over the course of four years she found not only clothing in our store but also a mentor thanks to a volunteer whose support extended to raising funds to provide her family a car. This girl, who has since aged out of foster care, now comes back to Loft 181 as a volunteer bringing her firsthand perspective of what foster children are going through to her ministry. 

Without our community’s generous answer to the call to give – with their prayers, volunteer time and donations – we wouldn’t have the opportunity to make a positive impact in these girls’ lives. And in this season of giving, I’m hopeful our journey inspires others to explore how they can work within their community to make a difference serving vulnerable children because with more than 24,000 children in foster care today in Florida alone, the needs are still many. 


Jennifer Whitten is the manager of Loft 181 in Tampa, Florida.   

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