Fostering a holiday feeling

Volunteers work to ensure that foster children aren't forgotten

December 10, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Rachael stretched out a sheet of holiday wrapping paper and plopped a toy on top of it. She took a pair of scissors to the beige paper covered with wreaths and then began to wrap.

"Sometimes the corners are tough to get just right," said the 13-year-old, whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy.

She was determined to get it just right because the gift was for a foster child. And Rachael knows full well how much such a gesture can mean -- she is a foster child herself.

"Sometimes foster kids need help, and not a lot of people are willing to give it," she said. "And I think no matter who you are, you should do what you can to help people."

Rachael and her family were among dozens of volunteers who gathered one night last week at Harford Community Church in Bel Air to wrap presents as part of a program that provides Christmas gifts to foster children in the county. The gifts were scheduled to be presented to the children during a dinner event last night.

Called "A Night to Remember," the dinner is a collaboration between the church and about 30 county organizations, including county agencies, other churches and businesses. The festivities were to include a catered dinner, entertainment, a visit from Santa Claus and two gifts each for 154 foster children.

But the program is intended to reach beyond the foster children, said Allan Gorman, senior pastor of Harford Community and an organizer of the event.

"Our desire is that every foster child, foster and adoptive parent, and the natural children of those families who share their rooms and their lives, would be honored and encouraged for their sacrifices and good work to safe guard our county's children," Gorman said.

In Harford, there are about 200 children in foster homes and about 75 families licensed to provide care.

The holiday party also is intended as a night for foster children and their foster parents to come together as a blended family, said Michelle Shaivitz, a foster mother.

"For one night, we all forget the foster," the 32-year-old public school administrator said. "We are all just parents and children."

The effort began in 2002 after Gorman and Greg Shirk, the church's art director, attended a faith-based community resource fair. They learned that funding for an annual Christmas party for foster children had been cut, and they wanted to help.

For more than a year, Gorman and Shirk met with Brenda Sponsky, who was a recruiter and trainer of foster parents for the Foster and Adoptive Family Service of the county social services department, to plan a holiday party.

The first party was held in 2003, a collaboration of dozens of county organizations that joined forces to put on an event that included valet parking, a catered meal, entertainment, games and gifts for every foster child, Gorman said. Since then, the party has included karaoke contests, visits from Santa Claus and gifts that were donated by the Harford County Sheriff's Office.

The gifts are the least they can do, said Tom Bradley, a detective for the sheriff's department.

"This is a way for all of us to give back to the foster families that do so much for all the children in the county that need a place to live," said Bradley, who is a church volunteer.

Many of the volunteers are members of the church and some also are foster parents or foster children, said Shaivitz, who has two foster children. The project is an opportunity to teach children about giving, she said.

"We have been trying to teach them that even though they may feel like they don't have a lot, that there are people out there that have even less than they do," she said.

During the preparation effort Wednesday night, four teen-agers who all have been in foster care for several years gathered to wrap gifts, sharing thoughts about what motivated them to participate.

"I am here because I want to help other children," said Monique, 14. "And I know how these kids feel."

The event also is a way to share the holidays with the extended family of the church community, Valerie said.

"It makes you feel good when you draw close to people that are so full of life," she said.

And it's important to help with a program that gives presents to children who might not otherwise get any, Samantha said.

"It's nice for children to have gifts when people can't afford to buy them some," the 14-year-old said.

For Amber, the event conjures up mixed emotions.

"It makes me feel sad to think about all the kids that don't have anything," the 17-year-old said. "But it's nice to know that they aren't forgotten and that someone is thinking about them."

Back in the entryway, Rachael continued wrapping presents and talked about being excited about attending the dinner event and about Christmas with her foster family.

"I don't know if I will get a lot of presents or not," she said. " But I will have a great Christmas because I'll have people around me that love me, and who will be there for me when I need them."

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