Cassie Helms and Mallory Walker met in Freshman Orientation, graduated together in 2021, and landed jobs at Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids. And though their work with foster children and teen refugees creates high-stress challenges, they are still good friends who finish each other’s sentences.
“When you’re dealing with teens,” Mallory says, “first of all, teens of your own are difficult enough, but dealing with teens that have—”
“Severe trauma,” Cassie interjects— “Can be really, really difficult.”
“It’s ministry work,” Cassie finishes.
In her role as a refugee foster care case manager, Mallory works with some of the world’s most vulnerable teens.
“Sometimes they’re fleeing from a national crisis, sometimes their family didn’t have the resources to take care of them. But a lot of times they’re coming here because a biological family member was abusive to them,” Mallory says.
The government calls them Unaccompanied Refugee Minors. Her clients, ages 13-21, arrive from Central America, South America, Africa, and a growing number from the Middle East.
“Some of them don’t know if their parents or siblings are alive,” Mallory says. “And they’re 16 years old, so they can’t function on their own.”
Somehow Grand Rapids became an unlikely hub for refugee services. In the past decade, Michigan has ranked in the top five states for refugees. BCS’ well-regarded program has attracted more refugees and, in turn, created more needs.
“They need a place to live—they need to be protected . . . they need a family,” Mallory says. “They need counseling services a lot of times, and they need an advocate for them. So my job is to make sure they’re safe, secure, and that they’re doing well.”
REFUGEE MINORS have fled their country of origin, seeking safety at a refugee camp. Instead, they often find dangerous conditions, minimal services to children, inadequate food rations—and the vulnerability of human trafficking. Most will never see their family again.
A foster care case manager, Cassie offers safety and support to children who have been removed from their home for any number of difficult reasons, usually involving the parent. She sees the effect of family trauma every day.
“If you’re not addressing your trauma, you’re going to be very angry, you’re going to have behavioral outbursts, and depending on your trauma, you might have sexualized behaviors,” she says. “A lot of our teens, especially the ones who have sexualized behaviors, have placement breaks all the time,” explaining how troubled teens bounce around the foster care system.
“Ultimately, we want to establish permanency for our kids as fast as possible,” she says.
When all goes well, families reunite. The next best solution, according to Cassie, is to place the children with other family members. “Studies have shown that kids go home sooner if they’re with their family,” she says. On the day we talked, she had testified in Family Court, reporting on two cases. “I testify to what the parents are doing, what they haven’t been doing, and whether they need more time.” But that can lead to the toughest part of her job, when she’s forced to recommend a termination of parental rights.
It feels like a heavy task for someone straight out of college.
GRACE IS REALLY GOOD AT TEACHING CULTURES—AND THE IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES IN CULTURES AND VIEWS
‘YOU CAN DEFINITELY DO THIS’
Cassie majored in Human Services, interned at BCS during her senior year, and landed a fulltime job even before graduating.
If her career path seems textbook-perfect, Mallory’s was less direct.
“I switched my degree way too many times—that’s a little embarrassing,” Mallory says as Cassie laughs, anticipating a familiar story.
Mallory launches into a meandering explanation about changing her major several times before settling on Psychology, once living in Africa, then in Nicaragua for three months. She returned home hoping for a job to use her Spanish skills—then she saw the BCS job posted online.
I thought I was applying for Cassie’s job, but I applied on accident to work with refugees,” Mallory says. The wrong job. Worse still, BCS called for an interview, leading to Mallory’s panicked visit to Dr. Scott Shaw, dean of the School of Social Sciences and Human Services.
“I feel enormously underqualified for this job,” she told him. “Do you think I can do this?”
Take it,” Shaw said. “You can definitely do this!”
Looking back, Mallory sees the thread that holds her story together: “My heart for people of different cultures is a big passion of mine.”
“Grace is really good at teaching cultures—and the important differences in cultures and views,” Cassie says, crediting the professors who influenced her, such as Dr. Pamela Sherstad and Professor Dawn Rodgers-DeFouw. Mallory jumps in to add Dr. Dave Greydanus, Dr. Scott Shaw, and Professor Sherita Jahaziel.
“I feel like it’s a small community,” Cassie says, “so your professors know you well, and they really want you to succeed.”
THE GOOD MOMENTS
veteran.” They’ll see war survivors, sexual exploitation, abusive parents, difficult court cases—“and when you go home, you can’t talk about it, because of confidentiality.”
Cassie’s first advice to Mallory was to set boundaries. Go home, have your own life, leave work at work. Otherwise, “you work with so many people, you just worry about them all the time.”
And cherish the best parts of the job—the “ministry work” that started it all.
“I love airport arrivals for families or kids,” Mallory says, describing how she welcomes refugees to the US. “You take them to a hotel, and you teach them how to turn on the heat, and where to turn on the faucet, and how to turn on the stove. That’s my most rewarding part of the job.”
Cassie recently finished a two-year case where foster children returned home, reunited with their family. “I got to have that call with a mom—‘My case just closed!’” Cassie says. “Those are the good moments.”
Kevin Mungons is the Backlist Curator at Moody Publishers and a freelance writer