Christmas arrives for ‘kids caught in the crossfire’

Do you worry that DHS workers may be cold and unfeeling? Read this, and learn why DHS workers volunteer hundreds of hours to make sure that innocent children – torn from their families because of their parents’ behavior – do have a few merry moments during the Christmas season …

East Multnomah County Department of Human Services Child Welfare workers Mary Egan Kirk and Lesley Willette check in guests to their annual Holiday Party, at their Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood offices.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
The last thing that State of Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) workers want to do is take kids away from their parents – especially around the Holidays.

“DHS doesn’t get involved with a family,” said East Portland and Rockwood DHS caseworker Mary Boehme, “unless something dire has happened. Obviously that’s no fault of the child.”

When parents get in trouble with the law, or are deeply involved in drugs, or act out other harmful behaviors that affect their children, is when DHS is required to step in, Boehme explained.

With the snowman and winter diorama she created to welcome guests to the party is DHS worker and volunteer Connie Kelley.

“A lot of it has to do with drugs, and making other poor choices,” Boehme said, as we walk through the East Multnomah County & Rockwood DHS Child Welfare Center on SE 122nd Avenue.

“But, in this [poor] economy, a lot more kids need care because their parents have lost their jobs – then their homes – and now can’t provide food, clothing and necessities for everyday life. Our work is to make a better life for their child – no matter what the circumstances are,” explained Boehme.”

Wilda Larsen helps a young guest “fish” for a toy – and it looks like they’ve “caught” a big plush toy.

The plain, clinical-looking DHS Center – it’s where parents come to meet with agents and advisors, and to have a supervised visitation with their kids – was decked out for the Holidays on December 14, as the yearly Children’s Holiday Party was in full swing.

For the day, every meeting room has been turned into an activity center featuring gift “fishing”, face painting, crafts, a pizza-and-snacks cafeteria – and a throne room for Santa.

Jeff and Bill Dayton, owners of Pizza Baron on SE 122nd, flank our guide, Mary Boehme, after they deliver another load of hot, fresh pizza.

“Pizza baronesses” Tonya Krake and Maika Christoforo serve up pizza to their many guests.

Boehme smiled as we toured the event, and said, “The spirit of Christmas really shines here on this day. In addition to working with their regular caseload, our people volunteer to decorate, get gifts, and solicit support from the community and businesses. It’s exhausting, busy – and so much fun.”

The idea of holding a Holiday party started about a decade ago, Boehme recalled, when caseworkers felt compelled to help put a small smile on otherwise joyless little faces. “It’s grown over the years. The kids love it. And, it’s a chance for parents and their kids who might be in foster care – to come together and really have a nice Holiday time.”

Client Deborah Stolzer, with Zamayia and Monikah Giles, say they’re enjoying the Holiday get-together.

Surprising to many is that this large event – they host about 300 kids and their families and caregivers – is held without cost to taxpayers.

“In addition to our staff volunteers, organized and led by our Stacy Mahler, we have wonderful community support for our event,” Boehme noted. “Local companies, like the Pizza Baron Restaurant, has been helped us from the very beginning. Over the years, they’ve provided hundreds of pizzas to feed everyone who comes.”

Boehme sent us a full list of donors – it’s at the end of the article.

Santa pauses for photo with his elf helpers, Kathy Nicholas, Vicky Leland and Annie.

A note from Santa
The volunteer who for many years has portrayed Santa Claus for this event shared his thoughts with us after the party.

“During the set-up of the event, I was again reminded that what constitutes social work is not easily defined. On this day, the office comes together to help other people. It’s a difficult time of year for the families we all work with. This party gives them a little time together, to celebrate as a family.

“As ‘Santa’, it seems that children and adults feel more at liberty to say something to me. Over the years, I have heard and experienced many differing things.

“Toward the end of the day this year, a boy about 8 years old came up to me and asked me, to ask him, what he wanted for Christmas. So, I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He came up to me and whispered in my ear. He said he wanted to live with his mother for Christmas. As I didn’t see a mother figure with him, I asked him when he last saw his mother and he said it was about 1 year ago. I put my hand on his shoulder and just held him for a few moments as I didn’t know how to respond to him.

“To me this is a reminder of why we all work so hard with each of the families we come in contact with, and why we choose social work as a career.”

Caricature artist Steve Dorris with Gator Grafix says he donates his time and talent because he enjoys bringing a little joy to these kids each year.

‘Honor Roll’ donors to the 2010 East County Children’s Holiday party

  • Patricia Bunnell – Airbrusher and balloon artist
  • American Society of Safety Engineers – Toys
  • Clark Vermillion Hoffman Construction – Cash donation
  • Sam Arneson and Steve Dorris – Caricature artists
  • Costco – Paper products
  • Doernbechers Children’s Hospital – 12 boxes of toys
  • DoubleTree Hotel – 200 cookies
  • Nicole Palazuelos – Face painter
  • Learning Palace – Box of toys
  • Linda Lemme – Cash donation
  • Krispy Kreme – 10 dozen donuts
  • McMenamins Pubs and Breweries – gift card and 10 movie passes
  • Music Millenium – CDs for gifts
  • NW Priority Credit Union – Major cash donation
  • Oaks Amusement Park – Two family skate passes
  • Peter Corvallis Productions – All of Santa’s room décor
  • Pizza Baron – Pizza
  • Plumbers and Steamfitters, local 290 – Patron cash donation $1,250.00
  • Mt. Hood Community College Steps to Success – Volunteers to wrap presents
  • Vetsource – Bags of toys
  • All Eastwood staff who contribute through fundraising, buying goods, and party planning and participation.

Here are just two of the many hand-drawn thank-you cards sent afterward by grateful participants.

© 2010 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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