Community champions: Amy Garnett
Taking a leap of faith
By Lauren Jackson
Photos by Rachel Howard and contributed
After owning a medical transcription business for more than 20 years, Amy Garnett took a leap of faith, choosing to open her heart to children and families in need. She will be celebrating 30 years with her high school sweetheart this year, and she is a mother to seven children.
Garnett was a foster parent for 10 years and adopted four children. Through her work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate and her experience as a foster mother, Garnett said she decided to help meet the needs of DHR by opening LifeLinks.
“I had a medical transcription business for years, and the industry is just changing because technology is changing. In the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to do something with children, something with foster care, whenever my business got to the point where I needed something else,” Garnett said. “A door opened in October 2018, and I just saw the opportunity to open LifeLinks.”
What began in Morgan County quickly spread into three counties, then five, and continued to grow. It currently serves nine counties.
“We do supervised visitation for foster kids who are separated from their parents. Parents get an hour or two – or whatever it is – in a week,” Garnett explained. “We also make an arrangement to pick up the kids from their foster homes, and we meet the parents or take them to visit in our office in Hartselle. I also have an office in Double Springs. We do counseling, we do drug screenings, we teach parenting classes, we have an outpatient substance abuse class; each county is a little different because they each have different needs.”
Prior to opening LifeLinks, Garnett and her husband served as foster parents for 10 years. Through her experience working with DHR and her time as a CASA, she said she realized the need for support services and approached DHR to see where the largest need was. After speaking with various workers, she had a long list of services needed in the county.
“When I went in that morning, I really didn’t know what LifeLinks was going to look like. I didn’t even have a name yet,” she said. “I have been able to custom build it to what different counties need. Some counties don’t have uses for drug screens because they already have people who do that, but they use us for in–home parenting classes or in–home behavioral aides.”
Despite the long list of services the organization offers, Garnett said she regularly receives requests for new classes or programs, and she always tries to be open to expanding to better serve the community.
“At least once a week I get an email from somebody that says something like, ‘Hey, do you offer domestic violence classes?’ – and I have a thing where I hate to say no,” Garnett said. “So even if we don’t offer domestic violence classes, then I say ‘Well, we don’t, but let me check on it,’ and within two weeks, we have formulated a curriculum, and we are offering domestic violence counseling.
“It’s really growing fast because unfortunately there is such a need to try to build families back together,” Garnett said.
In her time working with the foster care system, Garnett said she has only seen the need for support grow.
“As long as our area is so affected by drug abuse, the need for foster parents and the need for CASA advocates is going to snowball and increase,” she said. “If I could say one thing, I would say to anybody that has even considered becoming a foster parent to please sign up. Every single week DHR spends I don’t know how many hours on the phone trying to find homes for these kids they have picked up because of broken homes. They are out of homes; they don’t have anywhere to put them. I would say take that leap. Go to foster classes, sign up to be a foster family – and if adoption is not for you, don’t adopt, but consider being a foster parent,” Garnett said.
Garnett said she has always had a desire to help children in the foster care system, and she didn’t open LifeLinks until October 2019, until after her family decided that had finished their journey as foster and adoptive parents. “We had adopted, and we knew we weren’t going to adopt anymore, and I just felt like we were ready to move onto the next thing,” Garnett said. “I knew it needed to be something with that world – the adoptive/foster family world.”
Throughout her time serving families in the community, Garnett said she has encountered her fair share of heartbreaking stories. Despite the struggles, she said LifeLinks tries to keep things light and fun for the families. The office has recently taken up a tradition of decorating a Christmas tree for different holidays, including Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. She said the staff plans to continue to decorate with the changing seasons and holidays. They have also worked to make the LifeLinks office as welcoming as possible.
“We have a playroom set up that has every kind of toy you can imagine: a doll house, a kitchen, blocks, Jenga for the older kids,” she said. “It’s very, very homey; it’s in an old house, and I think it makes everybody so much more comfortable than visiting in a facility. We have an outdoor space, and in the spring and fall, they can be outside if they want to be.
“Now, they are supervised, but they don’t feel like they are supervised. This is maybe not the most pleasant days of their lives, but we try to make it better for them.”
Although LifeLinks offers services in nine counties, Garnett said Morgan County is especially important to her mission. As someone who grew up in the area, she said she wants to give back to her home.
“This is my hometown. This is where I have always lived, and I am very loyal to my county. My main goal is to take care of the families in Morgan County,” Garnett said.
Garnett said if she could tell her younger self one thing, it would be to open her heart to the families in need.
“I wanted to foster years before I did. I realize everything works out in God’s timing, and that’s why it didn’t work out until 2008,” she said. “I went through 15 years of not really knowing what my purpose was. I knew I had a desire to do something to help families and kids, but I didn’t know what my purpose was, and it just took that one step of ‘I am going to do this to figure out my purpose.’ I wish I had done it sooner.”
In her time working with local DHR social workers, Garnett said she has come to see how hard the staff works and how large the need remains in Morgan County. She said she would like to encourage others to consider becoming foster parents or volunteer in some of the supporting agencies.
“They could volunteer to be a CASA or they could help Families and Children Experiencing Separation. FACES is an organization in Morgan County that helps foster families with back–to–school supplies and summer camps and things like that,” Garnett explained. “They are always looking for volunteers and people to shop for school supplies and similar tasks. There is an organization called Clothe our Kids, and they take donations of nice used clothing, and they help clothe the foster kids in Morgan County.
“Anybody that wants to help can find a way to help. There are all kinds of needs.”