Upbring: Lutheran Social Services of the South

By Bishop Michael Rinehart

Each year, the three Texas-Louisiana ELCA bishops and the two Texas-Louisiana LCMS District Presidents meet at Upbring/LSSS for an update and collaborative conversation.

Photo (right to left): Texas District President Michael Newman, North-Texas-North-Louisiana Synod Bishop Erik Gronberg, Southwestern Texas Synod Bishop Sue Briner, Upbring CEO Kurt Senske, Gulf Coast Synod Bishop Michael Rinehart.

The seeds for Lutheran Social Services of the South were sown in the early 1860s in Louisiana, with the origination of the Bethlehem Children’s Center in New Orleans. In 1866, a Louisiana society that raised money to support needy orphans, tried to build an orphanage, but failed, due to poor economic conditions following the Civil War. The German Evangelical Lutheran Bethlehem Orphan Asylum Association was incorporated to the society in 1881, and in 1883 a plantation house became the first orphanage for Bethlehem. A new building capable of housing 80 to 100 children was constructed in 1886.

Texas’ Lutheran charitable work started when a pastor set up a Widows’ Aid Fund in 1867. But the agency officially began in 1881 to help those in need. Lutheran churches in Texas, along with out-of-state churches, helped raise $7,827.15 for people who lost everything in the 1900 Galveston hurricane. The Good Samaritan Society was created in 1924, but to avoid being mistaken for other organizations with similar names, the society later changed its name to Lutheran Aid and Orphan’s Society.

The newly chartered Lutheran Aid and Orphan’s Society bought Trinity Lutheran College property in Round Rock, Texas, with the help of the Augustana Association of Charities. The $25,000 purchase funded the creation of Trinity Lutheran Home, a haven for orphans and elderly that opened in November 1929. Due to a decline in the number of children cared for (from 33 a year to only 17 a year), the program for children ended in 1958. In its place, the Society decided to help unwed mothers and their infants.

Over the next decades, services expanded and diversified. In 1993, Texas and Louisiana combined services, creating Lutheran Social Services of the South. In 2009 foster care was rebranded as Foster in Texas. This and more information can be found on their webpage: https://www.upbring.org

All this is near and dear to my heart. We adopted our daughter through Lutheran Social Services of the South, in 2003.

Today Upbring has an annual operating budget of $70-75 million, serves more than 27,500 people annually in Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, and has approximately 750 employees in 23 communities.

Our visit

We were joined by Loren Riemer, VP for Corporate and Church Relations, Holly Raymond, Senior VP of Finance and member of Gethsemane, Austin, Andy Benscoter, Education and Residential Services, Jessica Vermilyea, Disaster Response, Michael Loo, President and COO.

A few years ago Lutheran Social Services of the South rebranded as Upbring. Upbring/LSSS is the largest provider of foster care in Texas. The reality is Lutherans make up about 1.5% of the population here. The organization has big goals, and the board agreed that they could not be achieved working alone. The foster department had already rebranded as Foster in Texas. (I remember talking to people who thought they couldn’t adopt through Lutheran Social Services, because they were not Lutheran.)

Then, Upbring/LSSS focused priorities. Some departments, like adoptions and fostering were thriving, while others, like senior services, were struggling. It’s harder to operate senior centers these days. You need to have lots of them to create economies of scale. Upbring/LSSS made the difficult decision to sell their senior centers and focus on what they felt they did with excellence: children’s services. Doing so paid off debt and provided resources to double down on their mission: To break the cycle of child abuse by empowering children, families and communities.

Upbring’s business model is based on three priorities:

  • Excellence in services
  • Thought leadership
  • Advocacy

In 2014, Upbring set up some key Reach Objectives, 7-10 years out, because substantive change takes time. The goal was to impact the lives of 10,000-12,000 children. Four years ago they impacted the lives of 5,000 children. Now it’s 7,000 children and growing. In any given year there are 17,000 in the system in Texas. If they impact 10,000-12,000, that would be most.

Kids get into foster care most often because of abuse. In Texas, 65,000 kids are abused. These are only those who report. Upbring, branded as Foster in Texas, has 800 children in foster care at any given time. Over the course of a year, nearly two thousand are in their care. In FY 2017 the number was 1,900. This year, FY 2018 there were 1,935. Next year they are projecting 2,000. Keep in mind, this is your ministry. Through your financial gifts, angel trees, and volunteering, you are doing this work alongside the staff.

In a program called Ascend, Upbring is assessing kids in our system as to where they are. State metrics keep track of how many times children have been moved, and if their folder is complete. Upbring is trying to assess more qualitative metrics, to see if they improve their education while in Upbring’s care. No one they know of is doing this, with this extremely vulnerable population. They are doing this through five key marker outcomes:

  1. Health
  2. Safety
  3. Vocation
  4. Life skills
  5. Education

Education is key. There are no social services that impact positive outcomes more than education. Upbring has planted two schools, one at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Austin, which started with 20 and now has 50 students, and Trinity Lutheran Church In Houston. Both of these were previously parochial schools that closed. Upbring leases space for a Christian STEM school they operate, with 10% of the students who are low income or in  foster care. Education is combined with wrap-around social services.

upbring maintain reach

Upbring is rolling out some new third-party software that will be a portal for giving and volunteer engagement opportunities. You’ll be able to plug in your geographical area and see volunteer opportunities. You’ll even be able to sign up.

Upbring’s response to disaster remains branded as LSS Disaster Response, because they are still well-known by other groups simply as “The Lutherans.” Disaster Response is done ecumenically.

LSS Disaster Response is involved in recovery as a part of Project Comeback: TEXAS, the FEMA-funded case management for Harvey. Project Comeback is a consortium of several agencies, each with their role: ELCA-LDR, Catholic Charities, UMCOR and others. The consortium is in 33 counties.

LSS-DR is handling monitoring, evaluation and data management for the entire consortium, about 12,000 cases. In  addition, they are doing direct case management services for a target of 1,015 families in ten counties: Aransas, Bastrop, Brazoria, Calhoun, Kleberg, Lee, Matagorda, Nueces, San Patricio, and Victoria. They are currently directly serving 130 families (42% with children, 23% with a head of household over 65). They have offices at St. Marks Lake Jackson LCMS and Salem Port Lavaca ELCA.

In Texas, Upbring is involved in Project Renew, in partnership with LCMS National Housing Support Corporation, Rebuilding Together Houston, and Living Water Lutheran Church. Their work is in the Trinity Houston Gardens Area.

In Louisiana, Upbring is doing disaster case management from the March 2016 floods. 205 total client families, 67% of which report disabilities. $800K+. They are also doing disaster case management  for the August 2016 floods. They are responsible for anything west of the Atchafalaya Basin. 694 families. $4M. Finally, they are doing project management with the Long Term Recovery Committee, Hammond, LA. Seven homes are being built. Three are currently in progress.

After more than two decades serving what is now Upbring, Dr. Kurt Senske is getting ready to step away from this work. The board is beginning an executive search. Sometime late in 2019 a decision will be announced.

Please keep the work of Upbring in your prayers, and in particular, the many vulnerable children, and families recovering from disaster.

Learn more: https://www.upbring.org