The nonprofit started by Joe Savalle offers mentorship and camp experiences for kids in foster care
By Karen Dybis
Statistics only tell half of the story: Michigan has approximately 13,000 children in foster care, most because of abuse or neglect.
Some will get adopted or return to their parents. Some will not. Some will graduate from high school. Most will not. Those were the hard truths when Joe Savalle started working with kids in foster care as a summer camp counselor nearly 20 years ago — and it was a reality that nagged at him.
As for the other part of the story: Savalle, who was inspired to do more, created a nonprofit mentorship program to tell it. Through Love for a Child, Savalle says he has witnessed children in foster care blossom when they have role models or consistent, trustworthy adults who show up no matter where these kids end up. “Everybody and their mother tried to stop me from doing this charity,” he says. “But it’s the best job in the world to raise up a group of leaders we call counselors and mentors who drastically change the lives of these children.” Founded in 2012, Love for a Child has two main components: a year-around mentorship program as well as a camp experience in Oakland County that focuses on fun and fellowship. Since it began, Savalle says Love for a Child has helped about 1,200 children through mentorship and summer camps. The 35-year-old Oxford resident is working on expanding the mentorship program and operating five camps across Michigan, both in the summer and winter months.
These long-term goals take what Savalle started doing as a volunteer at age 18 and turn it into a full-time job. That’s why, in 2018, the former marketing professional made the jump to running Love for a Child full time.
“It’s large enough to be scary but small enough to be achievable,” says Savalle of his career — and life — shift. “I’m completely, 100 percent obsessed with what we do and it never feels like work to me.”
This change comes after years of driving back and forth to Lansing to get state approval to work with children who have experienced trauma, all while developing a training program for mentors and establishing camps and campsites around Michigan. It essentially was Savalle’s full-time job, especially during the weeklong camps in the summer.
The camp experience centers on fishing, boating, hikes and hayrides, but it also brings in team building, life skills and individual recognition — something kids in foster care desperately need, says Savalle. That’s why he and the camp counselors rush the bus bringing the kids to camp with posters highlighting each child’s name. Savalle says that one-on-one connection is why the camp works and why the regular in-home mentoring means so much.
“Our goal is to give these kids their childhood back,” says Savalle. “We allow the kid to be a kid.”
Savalle isn’t going it alone. His wife, Michelle, also a former camp counselor, and his friend, Doug Button, are along for the ride. Button says Love for a Child started as a part-time gig but has become his mission as well.
“I truly believe in its impact on kids’ lives. We can change what foster care looks like in Michigan,” he says. “When I met Joe, I was a pretty wayward kid — I was upset at the church and upset at life. Joe took me under his wing and mentored me. It’s just second nature to do this together.”
Button says the commitment for new mentors is especially substantial. There are months of training and background checks as well as a contract to sign. But the rewards are ample.
“We ask our mentors to make a 12-month commitment. They’ll ask us what happens after that time. I tell them that you meet a kid, you fall in love with them and you keep going,” he adds. “It’s not about the contract any more. It’s about having someone in your life for the rest of your life. Once you’ve experienced what this charity can do, there’s isn’t a Plan B.”
Thanks to Love for a Child, kids that society may have given up on have a substantially greater chance of graduating from high school, going to college and living successful lives, says Savalle. These are the reasons he hustles from one fundraising meeting to another and accepts public speaking gigs wherever he’s invited.
Savalle, who is the father of a baby girl, says he still mentors kids in foster care, and that those experiences remind him why he embarked on this journey in the first place.
“We have a short time here on this planet,” he says. “You have to do what you’re called to do.”
Love for a Child was a winner of a Pitch Your Story Competiton, judged by SEEN Magazine at The Detroit Writing Room.