Thanksgiving came early again this year for about 400 foster children in group homes with the help of some Mesa and Ahwatukee women.
For the sixth consecutive year, women from the First United Methodist Church of Mesa teamed up with the Ahwatukee Kiwanis Club and the women of Desert Foothills United Methodist Church to host the children last Monday, Nov. 19, to a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings – and a lot more.
Led by Kiwanis Club member Andi Pettyjohn, Desert Foothills congregant Carolyn Blaney Arndt and Katie Mozurkewich, Pamela Ripley of First United Methodist, more than 100 volunteers cooked 176 pounds of turkey breast and huge amounts of side dishes for the non-denominational event.
There are over 18,000 children in foster care in Arizona through no fault of their own, said Arndt, who also is a Court Appointed Special Advocate, or CASA, for Maricopa Foster Children. Another CASA, Mary Davis also is involved in organizing the dinner.
“Sometimes we need reminding that the children have done nothing wrong – it is their family situation that isn’t safe. More than half of all foster children are now going into group home care, and many, even little ones, remain in foster shelters. There are not enough traditional-style foster homes, and those big group homes won’t be making any type of Thanksgiving dinner,” Arndt added.
The Arizona Cardinals are big supporters of the dinner and bring along their mascot Big Red as well as cheerleaders and Fiesta Bowl Ambassadors. The players sign autographs and the kids win prizes in raffles – the most popular being a football signed by the team.
Arndt underscored the plight of some of the kids, telling volunteers: “Remember that sad or angry children who aren’t eating, and don’t want to speak to you, might have just came in to foster care a few hours earlier and had to come along with their group home, no matter how sad they are feeling.”
Arndt also told new volunteers, “The best part of the whole night is watching so many smiles as kids recognize friends from previous homes.”
Catered by Ed helped prepare the meal, side dishes came from Charleston’s Mesa and Texas Roadhouse, and dessert consisted of pies baked by volunteers.
Pettyjohn and Arndt met by chance in 2013 and after hearing that there were foster children who wouldn’t be having any type of Thanksgiving meal, “we thought we could gather together volunteers and at least do a turkey dinner,” Arndt said. “We had no idea of the needs in the foster care system.”
Arndt was so moved by their plight that she trained to be a CASA, helping to watch out for children’s welfare in the foster care system and provide mentoring to them.
“These are lost kids in the system,” she explained. “We know 25 percent of them could be in jail in the next year. They don’t have to be. If the public steps up, you can mentor them or volunteer and just connect with them.”
Besides the Thanksgiving dinner, Pettyjohn also helps organize an annual baby shower for pregnant foster girls and helps get Christmas gifts for foster boys and girls from group homes as well. The Christmas gift drive will be beginning soon.
Desert Foothills United Methodist doesn’t stop with a Thanksgiving dinner for the foster children, either.
Congregants have continued to do outreach to those in need, preparing a Christmas turkey dinner for a large group home for teenage boys and having an Angel Tree where members of the congregation match donated new gifts, clothes and footwear for the youth.
Arndt said she hopes the dinner acts to raise awareness about the plight of older youth in the foster system, many of whom have trouble being adopted and remain stuck in the system until they come of age. But she also hopes the dinner provides a happy experience they can look back on fondly.
People can still help as well.
To help fund its annual Thanksgiving dinner for hundreds of foster kids, people can send a donation to the Ahwatukee Kiwanis, PO Box 50596, Phoenix, AZ 85076. Specify Thanksgiving or foster youth on the check.
To learn how to help with the Christmas gift distribution, contact email@example.com or 602-402-6267.