A toy, backpack or a new pair of shoes may seem normal items for a child in a stable environment, but for other children, those items have significance in more ways than one.
To a child in foster or kinship care, a new backpack with school supplies represents a choice of their own—one of the few decisions they may have control over and can give them a sense of individuality.
Helen’s Hope Chest, an organization that has provided items and services to foster children and families since 2009, hosts a backpack program that provides foster or kinship care youth backpacks filled with supplies for back to school. This year, the annual backpack distribution will be at Helen’s Hope Chest July 17-22 and July 31-Aug. 5.
“That’s probably one of the most powerful things that I’ve seen, is kids being able to enjoy an afternoon shopping and kind of forget all these other really difficult things going on around them,” said John Zielonka, community outreach coordinator for Helen’s Hope Chest. He also mentioned it’s rewarding for Helen’s Hope Chest to be able to make it a little easier for families on the financial end by providing items.
Since starting the backpack distribution in 2010, Helen’s Hope Chest has helped thousands of children in foster and kinship care receive backpacks and supplies for back to school.
“There are so many times we have kids come through, they get so excited because there’s their favorite color,” said Katie Pompay, executive director of Helen’s Hope Chest’s backpack distribution.
“It’s that ability for them to personalize it…they get to make their own decision, that I think is very unique for these kids,” Pompay continued. “So often, their autonomy is lost in the system…Helen’s kind of gives them that little bit back.”
Zielonka said about a month before the backpack distribution in July, volunteer groups will come in to Helen’s Hope Chest and help assemble the backpacks with supplies. Donations can be made online or in person; the supplies needed include new backpacks, lined loose leaf paper, composition books, colored pencils, glue, crayons, and markers.
Last year, Zielonka said Helen’s Hope Chest assembled about 2,100 backpacks and are hoping to increase that number to 2,500 this year.
“The nice thing about our backpack program is because we do serve kinship families that don’t necessarily have to have a case with the Department of Child Safety, those families often are grandparents who are retired on fixed income. So, we definitely can take some of that financial burden off the families,” Pompay said.
The backpack distribution is open to the public. To qualify to attend one of the distribution dates at Helen’s Hope Chest, the provider needs to bring a Notice to Provider letter from the Department of Child Safety as a verification process.
Helen’s Hope Chest started in 2009 in two rooms and a church, and has now expanded to its own building across from Mesa United Way.
Pompay said the growth of the organization is partly due to the increased number of children in care.
“The number of kids in care back in 2009 was only around 13,000 and now we’re up close to 18,000 and during that time in between, a lot of supportive services for families had started to be cut because of the recession, so the number of families in need really started to grow the number of children in need.”
Pompay said when she started at Helen’s Hope Chest in 2015, the organization served about 450 youths per month, where now they serve on average 650 per month. Around the holidays, she said this can increase to 650 per month since more families come from different parts of Arizona to receive services.
Part of this draw is the organization’s inclusivity to provide items and services to children in foster and kinship care throughout the state.
“One of the things I really have enjoyed about Helen’s is the direct services, the ability to work directly with the kids,” Pompay said. “I count myself lucky everyday that I get to count this as my job.”
Pompay mentioned the organization relies heavily on regular volunteers who donate their time to help Helen’s Hope Chest operate smoothly by accepting donations, conducting inventory, and assisting in preparation and running programs such as the backpack distribution. Pompay also spoke of the large community support from local organizations, which has allowed Helen’s Hope Chest to continue to provide services and programs to foster and kinship youth.
The other programs offered through Helen’s Hope Chest are John’s Room and JaKelle’s Christmas Box, both of whom were established in memory of youth who passed away.
“I really love when the kids come to Helen’s, it’s the high point of their day,” Pompay said.
“It’s knowing that these kids have never really had the chance to think about themselves, get that chance…the other thing I often see, is a lot of these kids are so giving. A lot of them will try to pick out things for their younger siblings… so it’s nice to be able to remind them they don’t have to do that, they can pick something for themselves and be a little selfish.”
Through July 15, monetary donations can be made online ($10 for a backpack, $20 for school supplies, or $25 for a combination), or donations can be dropped off in person Monday-Thursday and Saturday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. at Helen’s Hope Chest, 126 E. University Drive in Mesa.
To learn more about Helen’s Hope Chest, their programs and services, or get involved, visit mesaunitedway.org/helenshope.
– Mesa resident Alyssa Tufts is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.