Sunshine Acres welcomes the general public to Sunday services.
Cheryl Haselhorst/AFN Contributor

For kids who are apart from their families, Christmas can be a sad time. But Sunshine Acres Children’s Home in Mesa makes sure kids are loved and cared for that day and every day.

The only facility of its kind in the Valley, Sunshine Acres was founded in 1954 by Rev. Jim and Vera Dingman. Children come there for a variety of reasons. Their parents may be homeless, ill, in financial straits or incarcerated. The children also may be in the custody of grandparents who can’t care for them anymore.

All the placements are voluntary, which doesn’t make it any easier for the kids.

“I hurt for them,” said Shara Markwell, program administrator and great-granddaughter of the founders. “I have four kids myself.

“When I hear what they’ve endured, I just want to take that away,” she added. “Every staff member feels that way.”

Christmas day is a special day for the kids at Sunshine Acres. The kids live on campus in homes of 10 or so children with a house family. For them all, it’s a big, family Christmas.

“Christmas day (for them) is like any normal family,” Markwell said. “The younger ones wake up super-early and the teens want to sleep in.”

Usually, the youngest kids win and race to see what Santa left. They all open gifts and start playing.

“There’s paper all around the house afterward,” Markwell said.

The children then eat a big Christmas dinner in their house instead of the dining hall, where they usually take their meals. It gives the group a chance at a family tradition.

Markwell said every home – three homes for boys and four for girls ages 5 and up – has a different tradition.

“For some, this is the first Christmas they’ll have anything,” Markwell said. “They’ve never had Santa Claus.”

She added, “We want to make sure they feel the joy, not the pain.”

While at Sunshine Acres, the staff takes care of the kids, enrolling them in school, giving them a safe environment and providing a house full of friends. A pair of volunteer house parents oversees and helps raise the kids in each house. Sunshine Acres houses about 135 children a year.

One such home on the Mesa campus is called “Scotty’s Place,” where Amanda and Chad Jordan oversee 10 boys, along with their own two kids. The spacious home gives the children some much-needed stability.

“The children can start learning, start being a kid,” Markwell said.

But it’s important to the staff that the house parents are never called “Mom” and “Dad.”

“We’re an extended family, not a substitute,” Markwell said. The kids’ real parents are encouraged to visit, phone and write letters.

Guardians must agree to let the children stay a minimum of one year, but Markwell says the average stay is three to five years.

Markwell told a few success stories of former and current Sunshine Acres kids.

Years ago, a little boy, only 4, was dropped off. His mom had left the family and his father couldn’t take care of him alone. Markwell said her grandparents greeted him with big hugs – she knows that because he still remembers it and told her.

The boy grew up watching planes fly in and out of nearby Falcon Field airport and said he wanted to be a pilot. With support from his Sunshine Acres family, he did become one, flying for Southwest Airlines for years. He recently retired.

More recently, a girl came into the facility at age 14 “without hope,” Markwell said.

Markwell heard the girl sing under her breath to comfort herself. Markwell told her she had a beautiful voice and should share it. The shy girl, who had never sung in public, decided to try. She learned the guitar along the way and then sang three songs at a Sunshine Acres talent show.

“Now, she’s on the (church) worship team, and she’s thriving,” Markwell said.

Some kids here are over age 18, attending college and transitioning into life outside Sunshine Acres. Other former residents keep close contact with their Sunshine Acres family.

“Several work here now, at the donation center,” she said. “They love to come back. This is their home.”

For the kids who are here now, Sunshine Acres is a refuge.

Dusko, 10, has been at Sunshine Acres for seven months. “It’s awesome,” he said.

He’s excited for Christmas and says he’s been getting gifts already.

“For my birthday, I got like eight presents,” he said. “For Christmas, I’ll get maybe 15-20 more presents?” he guessed.

“I already got Minecraft – that game’s awesome. I got a Nerf gun, it’s like up to here on me,” he gestured, drawing a line on top of his chest. He wants some more Minecraft things for Christmas.

Luke is 12 and still dealing with being dropped off at Sunshine Acres two months ago.

“It’s fun and exciting, but it still sucks, too. You miss your family,” he said.

He wants an iPod, shoes, clothes, “basketball stuff and skateboarding stuff.”

Rob Scharrett, Sunshine Acres’ academic services director, knows what Luke is going through.

“He’s holding out hope that it’s a mistake,” he said about Luke’s new home. “But God has him here for a reason.”

The facility’s faith component is strong. Sunshine Acres was founded by a former pastor and is supported by people of faith, and its Sunday services are open to the public. But a belief in God isn’t a requirement for the kids.

“We want kids to have hope and have faith in something bigger. But we don’t force them,” Markwell said.

That spirit, that faith, isn’t just a Christmas thing at Sunshine Acres, she said.

“We preach hope to these kids all year long. We want to give them the love they deserve.”

– Contact Ralph Zubiate at 480-898-6825 or

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