Santa’s helpers lift spirits of outer East Portland’s foster kids

Here’s a heartwarming story of how the Oregon Department of Human Services creates a magical event for kids – many of whom are experiencing a very dark Christmas …

Along with his merry elves, Santa – and DHS caseworker Mary Boehme standing at his side – say the annual party for foster kids is the best day of the year for them all.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
It’s not a youngster’s fault when his or her parents are having problems significant enough for the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) to become involved in their lives.

But, it’s the child who suffers the most at Christmastime.

By law, DHS must step up and take action when parents act out behaviors harmful to their children, or themselves – like being involved in the drug culture, or being sent off to jail.

That’s what we were reminded by DHS caseworker Mary Boehme, when we visited the “Eastwood” – officially it’s called the “East Branch Center” – that  serves families in East Portland and Rockwood.

DHS staffer Jan Hege helps kids find the toy that’s their heart’s desire.

“Regardless of their parents’ behavior, we work to help give a better life to the child,” Boehme said, “No matter what the circumstance.”

In addition to educating parents, and providing a safe place for monitored visits – once a year at their facilities on SE 122nd Avenue just south of SE Powell Boulevard – DHS turns their austere offices into a “winter wonderland” for foster kids.

Guest Miranda Peterson enjoys decorating a gingerbread man.

“This party is also for children who have returned home,” Boehme pointed out. “A lot of people don’t realize that children can be foster care for up to two years.”

But the home to which these kids return – especially in today’s economy – can make for a bleak Christmas. “Often their parents are poor, and living at a standard lower than that of their foster parents,” explained Boehme. “DHS doesn’t just ‘walk away’ after a child has successfully been returned home; we keep supporting them. We’re giving the children who return home to their parents more opportunities as well.”

On that festive day this year, walking through DHS Eastwood was akin to stepping into a winter wonderland – with plenty of crafts, like cookie decorating and face painting, and with games and prizes filling every visitation room and conference room in the building.

Sharing the delight of the child receiving a new toy is DHS staff member Kalisha Stout.

Children were allowed to pick age-appropriate toys – unwrapped so they’d see what they were getting – from a large assortment piled up before them. And, they were treated to a pizza luncheon.

To cap off their day, they got a visit and photo with Santa.

Yet, this lavish day of entertainment cost taxpayers nothing. Not one cent.

“We hold fundraisers throughout the year,” Boehme said. “This includes silent auctions, a basket raffles, and other activities that don’t take us away from our jobs. We do it because it’s something that gives us a validation for all the work that we do. And, it’s fun!”

Tanya Brandel and Becky Olsen serve fresh pizza to kids and parents and foster parents who visit throughout the event.

“Another very important reason we can continue this tradition,” Boehme told us, “is the wonderful support from people, organizations, and companies in our community, who really make it possible.”

As an example, she added, “Our donors do it with a smile on our face. Like today, the guys from Pizza Baron were bringing in fresh, hot pizza every hour for the party. They’re a great example; I just love to see that kind of dedication.”

Bill and Jeff Dayton of Pizza Baron get ready to box up more bubbling hot pizzas for the annual DHS holiday party at their store on SE 122nd Avenue.

DHS Christmas Party Honor Roll:

  • Ace Hardware on SE 122nd and Powell Boulevard
  • Busy Bees
  • Caricature artists Sam Arneson and Steve Dorris
  • Costco at Clackamas
  • Doernbechers Children’s Hospital
  • Doubletree Hotel
  • Face painter Nicole Palazuelos
  • Grocery Outlet – Gresham
  • Linda Lemme
  • McMenamins’ Pubs and Breweries
  • Midway Business Association
  • Morrow Fruit Stand – Gresham
  • NW Priority Credit Union
  • Oaks Park roller-skating rink
  • Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
  • Peter Corvallis Productions
  • Pizza Baron
  • Plumbers and Steamfitters, Local 290
  • Safeway on SE 122nd Avenue
  • Saint Cupcake
  • Save A Lot Grocery – Gresham
  • Shine Chorus

“And, I must also thank all Eastwood staff who contribute through fundraising, buying goods and party planning and participation,” Boehme concluded.

© 2011 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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