When kids arrive at the Idaho Youth Ranch, they often come with nothing – no toys, no books, no bike.
After the ranch’s sixth annual Christmas party Saturday at Post Falls High School, most of the kids couldn’t carry all the gifts they received.
“For the families that can’t afford it (Christmas presents), this means a lot,” said foster mom Pattee Templin, mother to seven children, but only one biologically. “Foster children should have the same as any other kid.”
Idaho Health and Welfare contracts with the Idaho Youth Ranch to help run the foster care program. There are about 250 foster children – a fifth of those from out of state but living with families here – in Region One, which is Boundary, Bonner, Kootenai, Benewah and Shoshone counties.
“It’s not unusual for a police officer to call up and say ‘I have five children who need a place to stay,’ ” said Donna Bakman of the Idaho Youth Ranch. “And we take them.”
Foster parents Kevin and Wendy Cain have three of their own children and two foster children. Last Christmas they were out of work. The youth ranch Christmas party provided several gifts for each foster child, and even a few gifts for their non-foster children.
“We were looking at next to nothing (for Christmas),” said Kevin. “They are exceedingly generous.”
Templin said the giant pile of gifts, provided by generous community groups and individuals, is more than the kids really need, but that’s OK. “By the time they come to us, they’ve had some horrific experiences.”
Children are usually in state custody because of neglect or abuse at home. Drug abuse is often involved.
“We have such an epidemic of drug abuse that it’s changing the face of child welfare,” said Robert Gregory, program manager of Family and Children’s Services for Idaho Health and Welfare’s Region One. “Meth is so powerfully addictive that it interferes with the things they’re (drug users) supposed to be taking care of,” including their own children.
Foster families volunteer to take in children between birth and 18 years of age for minimal reimbursement, around $250 per month for a young child, a little more for older children. The families must pick up the rest of the cost.
Foster care can be a few weeks, a year or two, or lead to adoption by the foster family or others. Health and Welfare encourages foster parents and birth parents to work together toward reuniting families.
“Can you imagine what it’s like to go to a foreign house, with people you don’t know and try to join that family?” asked Gregory. “As adults, we forget what that’s like for a kid.”
Foster families are special because they provide structure and love for children who need it. “They really are champions in our community,” said Gregory, adding that there is a need for many more foster families. Fifty-three families showed up for Saturday’s party, where they ate breakfast served by Post Falls High’s food service cooks, and then met Santa. Each child received a large bag or sack of gifts. Shiny bikes, new skateboards, board games, toy trucks and dolls were testaments to the generosity of community members who donated the gifts.
The payoff for the IYR staffers and volunteers was in the eyes of a 5-year-old girl who jumped like a pogo stick at the sight of a new purple bike with the word “Princess” on the wheels. “The smiles are the best part,” said Mikhaela Euler, a volunteer for the past five years.Volunteers and IYR staff began planning the party in August. Families signed up and suggested gifts for each child. Requests were sent to churches, community groups and individuals who bought gifts. The last week was spent sorting gifts, piling them up and grouping them by family for the distribution.
One by one, families were called to the front of the cafeteria to receive a large bag of gifts for each child. “I live all year for this,” said one volunteer.
“This is one day they feel really special no matter what their circumstances are,” said Donna Euler, IYR program manager.