Chris Apodaca’s grim childhood began to change for the better when he entered Sunshine Acres at age 10. He had been living on the streets with his sister, two brothers and drug addicted parents for as long as he could remember.
But change came slowly at first. He was sullen and withdrawn. “I had grown a pretty thick shell,” Apodaca recalls. “I felt alone, and that became an excuse. But I felt safe and loved for the first time in my life.” Then when he was 13 he learned that his parents had been murdered in a drug deal gone bad. “That was the thing that really changed me. I had never wanted to live that kind of life; now I knew I had to change to have a better future.”
Apodaca started opening up to the caring staff at Sunshine Acres, and to the message of faith and hope that is central to the home’s Christian teachings. His behavior improved and he did well in school. He encouraged his sister, who also was at Sunshine Acres. When he left at 17 to strike out on his own he stayed connected with his house parents and other staff.
“It’s not like when you leave here they forget about you,” Apodaca says. “They were very supportive even after I left. They let me know that they always would be there for me.”
He supported himself, met the love of his life, got married and started a family. Then three years ago he decided he wanted to give back to Sunshine Acres, to help children the way he had been helped as a child. He was offered a job in the donation warehouse, plus a mobile home on the grounds where he, his wife and two children live today. Now at age 28 he leads a youth group every Friday evening that has grown to include 50 of Sunshine Acres’ 78 children.
“We include kids of all ages and have open gym. I wanted to give them something they could look forward to on Fridays where they could interact and feel that they were part of a family, like brothers and sisters. The house parents have gotten involved too.”
Shortly after moving back to Sunshine Acres with his wife and first child, Apodaca wrote a letter of thanks to President and CEO Carol Whitworth, daughter of founders the Rev. Jim and Vera Dingman. Whitworth, who was recently named Mesa’s Woman of the Year, treasures his and many other letters she has received over the years from former residents.
“I sit here once again reflecting on my life battles, “Apodaca wrote, “how I once was someone with no morals, no respect for myself and for others. You know the type of child I was when I came into Sunshine Acres and what I have become today. Back then as a child and as a man today, I can’t begin to thank Aunt Vera enough for what a wonderful life she has given me here at Sunshine Acres. I also praise you in my heart so much for your love, dedication and passion to continue loving these children of God that come from many bad broken homes, off the streets. Thank you for everything you do.”
Sunshine Acres Children’s Home (sunshineacres.org), which has been home to more than 1,600 children since it was founded in 1954, is one of 28 organizations that receive funding from Mesa United Way. To read more “Faces of Need - and Hope” stories and to help, visit mesaunitedway.org.