Miriam Cobb, founder and director of The Empty Frames Initiative, discusses how Empty Frames reaches out to young people who are aging out of foster care, and how relationships and community are essential to the ability to live independently.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Thank you for joining us for this week’s Focus on Faith edition of Family Policy Matters, the weekly podcast and radio program of NC Family. Some of the most vulnerable members of our communities are young people who age out of state care, like foster care and orphan programs. As these precious youth age out of the system and try to navigate life on their own, they often become susceptible to human traffickers, or they’ll get involved in criminal life, or worse yet, they’ll even commit suicide. One organization, based right here in North Carolina, is looking to shift the paradigm and perspective for these young lives.
Miriam Cobb is a young lady whose passion to advocate for the struggles that come with fatherlessness in the field of orphan care has led her to found and now serve as the director of the Empty Frames Initiative. In addition to helping tell and redeem the stories of youth who age out of state care, the Empty Frames Initiative is working to open a facility that will provide counseling, life skills training, community, and the message of the Gospel to young people who are often forgotten and overlooked by much of the community.
Miriam Cobb, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show today.
MIRIAM COBB: Thank you for having me.
THOMAS GRAHAM: It’s our delight, our pleasure. So Empty Frames and this show have something very much in common, Miriam, we like to tell individual stories. So let’s start with your story, if you don’t mind. What in your family life and faith backgrounds has come together to form the woman who is here today taking on this very important work?
MIRIAM COBB: I grew up with parents who believe the Bible and who believed the Lord answered prayers and wanted a relationship with them personally. That’s been a major factor for sure. I accepted Christ when I was pretty young. When I was around 15, I read a book called Choosing to See, by Mary Beth Chapman. The book detailed her personal life and touched on the topic of adoption and loss within her family. The Lord really used that book to speak to me and I felt called to orphan care since then. For a long time, I didn’t know exactly where that would lead, but God did, and it’s been amazing to see how it all played out.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I’m sure it has. Miriam. This beautiful work actually started as an adoption photography project. Tell us about that work and how it has grown into the Empty Frames Initiative, would you please?
MIRIAM COBB: The initial idea was a photography company that would use a major part of its earnings to travel with families and photograph their adoptions. I also hoped that once photographing adoptions internationally, I could teach photography as a life skill to children in orphanages around the world. It would give them the ability to tell their stories with dignity, and then use the medium of photography to create an income for themselves. It seemed like a great opportunity to put the narrative in the hands of those who should have ownership of their stories, and I still love that idea. But I was challenged by a business— essentially a business think-tank—that’s based out of California. They challenge me to dig deeper and see what else the Lord wanted to do with this idea. I spent three weeks with their company at a Christian conference called “21 Project” and then in time, the Lord grew the vision into this huge thing we’re talking about today.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Wow, what a journey that you’ve been on then. When we speak about young people, you’re a fairly young person yourself, aren’t you?
MIRIAM COBB: Yeah, I’m 23. I get that a lot.
THOMAS GRAHAM: It’s wonderful that at such a young age, the Lord would lay his hand upon you and that you would receive that sense of direction from Him, and then step out and with great faith and perhaps some trembling vibes going on as well, in order to pursue what you feel Christ is calling you into. I think that’s wonderful. Miriam, what are the greatest, or should we say, the most common challenges that young people face as they transition out of state care and into independent adulthood?
MIRIAM COBB: Different people would answer that different ways just depending on your background or fields, because it’s complicated. There’s just so much to the transition period. But Empty Frames Initiative has been learning—and what I personally believe—is that the biggest challenge is the lack of community. They’ve grown up, or sometimes recently placed in state care because they weren’t safe in their biological homes, but where do they go when their foster family legally can’t host them anymore? Most 18-21 year olds don’t leave home for work or college with the understanding that they can’t come back, or that they can’t stop or pause safely. It’s not really the challenge of shelter or college or workforce readiness—all of those things are important—but relationships and community are essential to the ability to live independently. As weird as that sounds, we need each other to be able to live on our own. When we spoke with a focus group of foster care alumni, that’s the area they felt they needed the most help when they transitioned out. Navigating interpersonal conflict in relationships. If no one’s showing you how to engage with those around you, it’s easy to become isolated, and that isolation leads to a lot of the problems we spoke about at the beginning of the program. No one’s meant to walk alone.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Absolutely, and so helping to form a community that is supportive and that is embracing of these young people is critical, isn’t it Miriam?
MIRIAM COBB: Right. It is.
THOMAS GRAHAM: And how receptive do you find many of these young people to be to that level of outreach, support, care, and concern? How receptive do you find these young people to be?
MIRIAM COBB: The people we’ve been able to speak to have been very receptive. It’s a known need and an understood need among the community of foster youth. And we’ve been able to work with a group called SAYSO, it stands for Strong Able Youth Speaking Out, and they work with foster youth from 14-24. We’ve been able to work with some of their kids and just get to know them. And they all understand the need that they are about to be facing, so they’ve been receptive to the idea and very supportive of it. So we’re excited about that.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I’m guessing Miriam, that engaging the church is a major aspect of making the dreams and the hopes of Empty Frames become a reality. Could you talk to our listening audience for just a moment about what role you see for the church in this work that God has raised up?
MIRIAM COBB: The church is integral to this decision. As we go through the Bible, we see repeatedly the calling on the church to love and care for the most vulnerable, the widows, orphans and the displaced. And we want to give the church an opportunity to respond to that calling. We’re looking for people to be involved through prayer, prayer for our future participants, for the planning process, for our funding. They can be involved in helping us get the word out. We love to speak at churches and have the people share our website on Facebook or wherever. We’re still in the process of raising the initial funds to get our project off the ground, so any and all donations are appreciated. That’s what we need help with right now at the beginning, once we get our site in the Raleigh area, we’ll be inviting the church to help get the home ready, like you’re mentioning. Physical labor and some help getting rooms ready. We’re looking for people to come volunteer and teach life skills, and to be the community to students going through our program.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Indeed, and I think you’ll agree with me when I suggest that the church can be a very, very rich resource for you and for your efforts here. Don’t you agree?
MIRIAM COBB: Yeah, absolutely.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Here in Wake County, are you a part of any local church? I’m going to assume that your answer is yes, and we haven’t actually spoken about that, but could you tell me about that for just a moment?
MIRIAM COBB: Yeah, I go to Northridge Church. It’s a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and I’ve been going there for about five years now, six years.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Wonderful, and I’m guessing that the people that you attend church with—the other members of the congregation—have come alongside you and have demonstrated lots of support for you doing the work that this ministry calls you to do, right?
MIRIAM COBB: Yes, they’ve been very supportive, and we’ve been going for about three years now and all along the way we’ve had the support of our church and different members. I believe, someone who recently started attending our church passed along my information to you.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Yes, I’m sure.
MIRIAM COBB: It’s been great to see how the Lord has connected us through that.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I think I’ve learned that there’s a discipleship program that you’re launching in Raleigh. Could you talk to us for just a few minutes about that program, Miriam?
MIRIAM COBB: Yes. So we’re looking to open a short-term residential program. It’ll be three months of intense discipleship where students will be taught life skills. They will be engaged in the local community and hear the message of the Gospel. During this time they’ll be living at a site that would not only hold a discipleship program, but a small business that will help make the program self-sustaining. We are currently planning out a photography gallery that would display the stories that come through our photography curriculum. So students going through our program would help contribute to the gallery with their own stories, or what they choose to share with us.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Now that’s a very creative idea! Is that your idea or did someone else suggest that to you?
MIRIAM COBB: You know, God has been in all of the details of this and I can definitely say it was a God idea.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I also think that this is an international effort. Could you tell us about both the people from around the world that have joined you in this work, as well as the global vision for the future?
MIRIAM COBB: Yes. My first international experience was with a group called Josiah Venture. They work in Central and Eastern Europe, and one of their primary ministries is evangelical summer camps. I had the opportunity to be a summer intern with them and through this connection the Lord showed me a lot about the social dynamics of those countries, and it played a huge role in our initial vision where we wanted to restore old buildings into places that represent redemptions and things being made new. That plays again into our name Empty Frames. Since we began three years ago, we met with people who work out of Russia. They’re called The Harbor in St Petersburg. It’s an amazing organization that’s been working with this age range for a long time, helping them transition from orphanages to independence. We’re incorporating a part of their curriculum into our own and we’d love to partner with them directly in the future. There’s also a group in China that we’ve had contact with and who need a program like what we’re developing. The need is so huge and it’s being felt around the world. We’re hoping to have our Raleigh program as a model that can be replicated and that will allow organizations already invested in the early lives of these youth to continue with them into adulthood.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Miriam, I think that is fantastic. When I think of the global scope of this, I become even more impressed with the vision and the sense of mission that God has given to you, and those that have come around you. I think it’s just wonderful. Great to know that all around the earth there are people just like you, who God has spoken to and who really want to do something to change the lives of these young people for the better. I think that’s wonderful. Are a number of the folks that are involved in other parts of the world, are they in your same age bracket as such, or is it a mixed group of ages? Perhaps you could just speak to that for a moment.
MIRIAM COBB: The people who work with Josiah Venture are normally, the beginning people are close to college age and lots of them will stay on for about ten years and, I believe, will want to be involved in the future. People who run The Harbor in St. Petersburg started when they were about my age. The man who runs it has an incredible testimony of how he himself came through the orphanage system there and was invited into that vision pretty early, in his early twenties. And the people in China, yeah, they’re actually pretty close to my age too!
THOMAS GRAHAM: I think that’s wonderful. I commend you and all of those like you at such an early age in life to be placing yourselves in such a role as we’re talking about here today. Miriam, how can we as individual Christians serve and love these often unseen young people in our own communities? What can we do? How can we demonstrate Christ’s love for them?
MIRIAM COBB: There are so many ways, and for each individual, I believe that begins with prayer. Ask the Lord to open our eyes to the right opportunity. If you’re called to be a foster parent, you’re needed. If you’re called to adopt, you’re needed. If you’re working with the homeless shelter, you’re impacting this population. If you’re working with anti-trafficking groups, you’re impacting this population. I believe the Lord will provide the right opportunity if you seek him on this issue. If you’re looking for a specific avenue and needing help, I’d love to hear from you. I’ve gotten the chance to meet some great organizations that I could connect you to, or maybe you could even be a part of the work we’re doing at Empty Frames Initiative. There are countless ways to be involved. I think it really does come back to what is the Lord calling you to do individually.
THOMAS GRAHAM: So, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go Miriam, where can our listeners learn more about Empty Frames Initiative, and also the ways to become involved in this wonderful work?
MIRIAM COBB: They can go to our website at fillingemptyframes.org.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Miriam, thank you so very much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today, and for your bold work to share and to live the Gospel with these young people around the world and in own backyard.
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