PITTSBURG, Kan. (AP) — Lacy and Tom Nickelson didn't realize the critical need for foster care services in southeastern Kansas until they began working with children in police protective custody two years ago.

Children are placed in police protective custody after they're removed from their parents or guardians but while still waiting to be entered into the foster care system.

"In Kansas, we call it short-term placement for children who come into care, and it averages about three to six days, depending on the child or children that you take in," Lacy Nickelson said. "It was such an eye-opening experience for us and showed us the great need for more quality homes."

The number of children in need of foster care exceeds the number of foster homes in the region.

In Crawford County, there are currently 188 children who have been removed from their homes but only 69 licensed foster homes. In Cherokee County, there are 88 children needing a place to stay but only 39 foster homes, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families.

Lacy Nickelson said they've taken in 14 children over a two-year span and have four children of their own, who help the arrivals feel less timid in a new place.

"We make them feel comfortable by reading books," she said. "Our kids have made them feel welcome, but it's also been a life-changing experience for our own children. I feel like it's increased our own children's compassion because they see these kids that come in who immediately need to feel secure."

The Joplin Globe reports that the longer the Nickelsons were involved, the more they wanted to help, which is how Fostering Connections in Pittsburg was started. The nonprofit, faith-based group offers support through events, mentoring and training. It provides monthly support group meetings and special activities such as Family Fun Nights and Kids Night Out.

The organization recently received nonprofit status. Lacy Nickelson, who serves as the executive director, said the goal is to bring families closer together.

Beginning this month, the organization also will be packing VIP Kids Boxes in partnership with area businesses. These are small boxes filled with everything from handheld games and toys to toiletries and encouraging notes that are given to children who are placed in foster care.

The boxes are sealed with a lid and can be made for different age groups and genders. After they're compiled, the boxes are taken to agencies like the local police station and other social service organizations where they're distributed to children.

Nickelson said the boxes are often the only thing the child will have in their possession at the time of placement.

"Many kids can sit for hours in an agency or office waiting to be placed without anything of their own, so VIP Kids Boxes are designed to immediately be given to the child as they first come into care," she said.

Erin Fletcher, of Pittsburg, volunteers with the organization.

"You realize just how much kids and families out there need that, and it's a good reminder of what we can do as a community to make this world a better place," Fletcher said. "We can all make a difference if we step up and give a little bit of ourselves."

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Information from: The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com