Everyday Hero: Collecting holiday donations, showing love for teenagers in foster care
Many people go about doing good deeds in their families, neighborhoods, organizations and church congregations. “Utah Valley’s Everyday Heroes” celebrates these unsung community members and brings to light their quiet contributions.
Giving comes in all shapes and sizes. For the more than 540 children in foster care this holiday season, giving from community members in Utah County came in the form of gift cards, teddy bears and “Apples to Apples” card games.
Utah Foster Care often sees an increase of children this time of year due to an increase in stressful family situations. When youth are removed from their homes, they often only have time to grab whatever they can carry.
“We don’t have orphanages in the United States, but we do have children without a home,” said Heidi Naylor at the Utah Foster Care office in Orem.
She spoke of several children who were recently taken into care days before Christmas, including a young girl who longed for a Barbie doll and another girl who only asked for socks without holes. Recent donations from the community helped caretakers grant both girls with wishes.
“We’re always looking for donations. We wouldn’t be able to do things we do for our foster families and our foster youth without the community wrapping themselves around these children,” Naylor said.
She works as the parent retention services specialist and collected the holiday donations this year. At Lincoln Academy in Pleasant Grove, elementary school children in all grades bought teddy bears and gave each bear a hug before giving the toys away. Another elementary school in Lindon created large gift sacks filled with candy and presents for children in foster care.
“It always seems to be when the need is there, the right thing happens,” Naylor said.
But the hardest donations to gather are always gifts for teenagers. The majority of holiday donations are usually geared toward children ages 10 and under, Naylor explained.
Finding gifts for teenagers is more difficult, but Pleasant Grove resident Melanie Tucker was inspired to rise to the challenge.
After reading a Facebook post encouraging community members to start a donation drive, she called Utah Foster Care to ask what she could do to help.
“I’m sure they have tons and tons of needs, but (Naylor) said what they needed right now most were things for teens. That’s what I focused on,” Tucker said.
As an adoptive parent, she understood the unique needs foster parents face when caring for children who experience traumatic events. She adopted her son, William, soon after he was born, and several of her close friends adopted children who were in foster care.
“I’ve just been learning recently about parenting children who have come from trauma and the challenge that is and helping them to heal,” she said, trying to hold back tears. “My heart goes out to that, and I wanted a way to support a friend who is going through a hard time who is also a foster parent. So when I saw this, I thought this was a perfect opportunity.”
Her 3-year-old son also wanted to help. Whenever a family came to their door to drop off donations, William “would wrap up one of his toys in a box and he would want to give it to them,” Tucker said, chuckling.
“You could tell the gifts that each family gave were very individual to them,” she added. “All of them said ‘I wish we could give more.’ It was just really special.”
After posting messages on social media and talking with her friends, she collected armfuls of pajamas, gift cards and card games for teenagers in foster care.
“‘Apples to Apples’ was a very popular one we got,” Tucker said with a laugh.
Card games and board games are great gifts for teenagers and provide a fun bonding opportunity for both biological families or foster families, Naylor explained.
Gift cards are sometimes seen as a sterile gift, she added, but teenagers in foster care normally need more “experiences” than gifts. Going to McDonald’s with friends or shopping for their own tastes is typically much more valuable to teenagers.
“Melanie was phenomenal because I explained to her what our needs were, that we really needed games, that we really needed gift cards for children who came in last minute,” Naylor said. “And that is what she was able to donate.”
Even though Tucker and her husband battled through a nasty flu last week, they still managed to drop off the donations to the Orem office on Thursday.
“We had such a good experience with it. I think it’s going to be something that will become a Christmas tradition for us,” Tucker said. “It was probably one of the most touching things I’ve ever done.”