Vulnerable kids given Christmas delight by East County welfare workers

Read this story, and discover why these State workers donate time, energy and money – the year around – to host this party for our most vulnerable kids …

Staff of the Oregon Department of Human Services, Child Welfare, Multnomah East Branch offices decorate the lobby, turning it into a “winter wonderland” scene.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Most adults find it difficult to be alone, in strange surroundings, during the Holiday season.

One can only imagine the sadness and bewilderment that children experience, removed for their safety, from their natal parents, must experience – as “Santa’s Big Day” approaches.

Again this year, staff and management at State of Oregon Department of Human Services, Child Welfare, Multnomah East Branch (DHS) in the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood, worked all year to get ready for this special day: December 11.

To most people, the darkly-overcast rain-swept Tuesday was much like others that fall between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas.

Bur for the hundreds of foster children who visited the DHS offices on SE 122nd Avenue that afternoon – their spirits were lifted as they entered a true “Holiday winter wonderland”.

DHS Social Services Specialist Wendi Sumner, and Permanency Unit Caseworker Mary Boehme, get ready for the hundreds of foster children coming soon to their annual Holiday party.

“This is special party for children foster care,” smiled DHS Social Services Specialist Wendi Sumner, one of this year’s organizers. “It is a party where these kids have a chance to spend time with her biological families, and have a good time.”

The client children are in “substitute care”, Sumner told East Portland News: “usually because of abuse or neglect situations – or other situations that would put their safety at risk. We are charged with ensuring child safety; which sometimes means removing them from their families of origin.”

DHS Permanency Unit Caseworker Mary Boehme, one of the originators of this event back in 2000, joined the conversation.

“This party is also a good opportunity for a child to see their foster parent and their biological parent being together, on a fun day,” Boehme explained. “Here, the adults put their feelings aside for a couple hours while they eat pizza, play with the kids, and see the children having a good time with Santa, decorating a cookie, or winning a toy they adore.”

Surrounded by “DHS Elves”, Caseworker David Udlock again becomes Santa Claus for hundreds of kids.

For about a decade, DHS Caseworker David Udlock has put on the red-and-white suit and white beard, and alighted onto “Santa’s throne” for the event

“For many of our clients who come here today, it’s often not the best of times,” Udlock reflected.

“This is the one time of year that kids have an opportunity to …” Udlock paused while he searched for a fitting word, “… experience joy. They get to experience happiness, even in spite of everything else that’s going on around them.”

For him, participating “feels good because it’s able to give them something that helps them smile. When they sit with me, we take a photograph. Some might consider it just a simple picture. But to them, it’s a remembrance of good memories – and having some ‘good memories’ are critical to children, as they grow up.”

DHS staffer Jane Bahr joins Midway Business Association volunteer Jackie Gartzke from the Portland Tax Company, who helps Bill Dayton of Pizza Baron deliver lots of hot fresh pizzas to be served by other DHS volunteers Vicky Clarke, Charlene Chut, and Linda DeLisle.

Funded by open hearts, not tax dollars
“No tax dollars are involved in putting on this event,” reminded Sumner. “We do all of our own fundraising – each unit has several fundraisers a year. We have silent auctions, craft sales and baked good sales to raise money.”

Area businesses and organizations also donate funding, food and services, Sumner pointed out.

“Most of our donors are local organizations and businesses, such as Pizza Baron,” Boehme said. “Year after year, Bill Dayton continues to help us feed everyone.”

Dayton responded, “When I see the big smiles on these kids’ faces, it really lifts my spirits.”

These “angels” lent a hand supporting this year’s party:

  • Ace Hardware
  • Caricature artists, Sam Arneson and Steve Dorris
  • Doernbechers Children’s Hospital
  • Double Tree Hotel
  • Face painter Nicole Palazuelos
  • Electric Castle’s Wunderland
  • Hollywood Theatre
  • Linda Lemme
  • (The) Lippman Company
  • Mamababy Boutique
  • McMenamins Pubs and Breweries
  • Midway Business Association
  • NW Priority Credit Union
  • Oaks Amusement Park
  • Felishia Lopez
  • OMSI
  • Peter Corvalis Productions
  • Pizza Baron
  • Plumbers and Steamfitters, Lcal 290
  • Portland Winterhawks
  • Presents of Mind
  • SERP Enterprises
  • Flying Pie Pizza
  • Dave’s Killer Bread
  • Bella Cupcakes
  • Helium Comedy Club
  • Office of Brock Herriges, DMD


Kids sign up for a special “Holiday makeover” from face painter Nicole Palazuelos of Nicole’s Face Painting.

When it’s all over, and the staff has cleaned up the offices and reset the furniture for the next day’s work, “We all kind of crash,” Sumner said. “But, we’re all left with a good feeling. It feels like we’ve done something special, and positive, for these families who find themselves in an otherwise negative situation.”

Boehme added, “And, it shows these children – and the adults in their lives – that this is one time during the year when the Christmas spirit prevails, and really works its magic.”

© 2012 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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