A jolly Christmas for ‘overlooked children’

Discover why government workers make sure these foster children find joy, during the Holiday season …

Ready to welcome more children and caregivers to the DHS-East Christmas party, are Linda Delisle and Courtney Bridges.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

The sprawling building located in a one-time shopping center along SE 122nd Avenue, just south of SE Powell Boulevard in outer East Portland, is the location of a State of Oregon agency with a serious mission.

The Department of Human Services-East Branch (DHS) in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood is charged with overseeing families judged to be unfit to keep custody of their children. This means that there are more than 100 children, during Christmastime, who are staying with foster families or relatives.

DHS East Branch Case Worker Pete Burns escorts Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus to the “Throne Room”.

“Today we are holding our annual Christmas party for client children, and families,” explained DHS East Branch Case Worker Pete Burns, as he led this year’s tour, just after noon, on December 10.

Rooms on either side of what might otherwise be a long, foreboding hallway, usually used for family therapy and visitations, have been converted by volunteers into a wondrous playland – each featuring a craft, a face painting station, or a game.

“It is a great big event for us, fueled by lots of excitement and enthusiasm on the part of our staff,” Burns told East Portland News. “Many families come, including foster families, as do service providers and inter-agency supporters.”

After “fishing” for a toy she “caught” and now is examining, guest Emberlee Jackson meets DHS Elves Dina Garcia and Angelia Hall-Johnson.

DHS steps in when parents are involved in cases such as substance abuse or domestic violence, for example, Burns said. “It is a harsh reality that these youngsters are removed from their birth parents for their safety. We’re providing a chance for these kids to relax, unwind, and not worry about things for a while during the Holidays.”

Children in the system are often removed from their birth families, Burns pointed out.

“The children in our care have often been through a lot of tragedy, making the Holidays a relatively dark time of year. Some of the children are also separated from their siblings. When possible and when appropriate, they are reunited for the day with their birth families.

“This party may be a time when they can have some special happy memories,” added Burns. “This is a bright spot in the year that gives them a lot of joy. At this special party, they get to visit Santa, receive new gifts – including toys – and eat good food.”

Manager Jeff Dayton and owner Bill Dayton of Pizza Baron bring in their first delivery of fresh hot pizza for the DHS Christmas Party.

Volunteers Marina Shaydarova and Donna Thomas serve a slice of pizza to Amy Avino.

To accommodate the families’ schedules, it’s hosted as a “drop-in” event for four hours. However, Burns observed, this half-day represents a mere fraction of the time put into rising funds, obtaining donations, and planning the party.

“Throughout the year, on their own time, staff members hold bake sales, raffles, and other fundraisers,” Burns said. “It’s funded by the employees. “In addition to the funds, we work to gain contributions to the project.

“We all still do our ‘regular’ work, managing our cases,” Burns continued. “But before and after hours, countless co-workers are working on this project, putting an additional hours of their own time, volunteering weekends, and after work, to bring in gifts from the community and to decorate the office.”

Volunteer Lorne James decorates a guest’s face during the celebration.

Burns emphasized that the volunteer crew doesn’t “do it alone” – but instead, has the support of a generous community of donors. [*See this year’s “Honor Roll” below.]

“We encourage our greater community to support businesses who support us,” Burns said. “For example, for years now, Bill Dayton and his son Jeff come by the event every hour, delivering a supply of fresh hot Pizza Baron pizzas – they’re the feature of our luncheon buffet.”

For the fundraising raffles others donate gifts, food, and services. For example, this year, the Portland Trail Blazers donated an autographed basketball that was auctioned off to raise funds that in turn were used to buy toys and gifts specifically requested by the kids.

“Each case worker collects a list of what the kids really want for Christmas,” Burns said. “Through donations and purchases, each of the some-120 children that will come throughout the afternoon is allowed to select toys they desire.”

Volunteer Louie Avino encourages Summer Etier, as she plays a “toss the ball” game. She won a prize – in fact, Louie makes sure every player wins!

Asked why so many people would put so much effort into this party, Burns answered quickly: “We do this to help make Christmas special for every kid that comes to the door. It brings families closer together, and gives them something to share.

“Any opportunity that can bring families together for a special event is something in which we delight,” Burns said.

DHS East Branch Christmas Party
Donor Honor Roll

Academy Theater ~ Arctic Sheet Metal, Clark Vermillion
Bed Bath & Beyond ~ Bob’s Red Mill ~ Busy Bees
Caricature artists Mike Morley and Matt Schlosky
Dave’s Killer Bread ~ Doernbecher’s Children’s Hospital
Double Tree Hotel ~ Dutch Bros.
Embrace Oregon: June Yun, Marelyn Hency
Finnegan’s Toys ~ Fire on the Mountain
Flying Pie Pizzeria ~ Higgins Restaurant
Hollywood Theater ~ Honest 1 ~ KGW
McMenamins ~ New Seasons
NW Priority Credit Union ~ Peter Corvallis Productions
Pizza Baron ~ Plumbers and Steamfitters, Local 290
Portland Nursery ~ Portland Winterhawks
River Place Hotel ~ Seattle Seahawks
Tom and Barb Slyter ~ Target
Trailblazer Foods ~ Voodoo Donuts
The DHS East Multnomah Child Welfare staff

© 2015 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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