When 11-year-old Blake woke at 7 a.m. on Saturday and got into his dad’s car, he thought he was going with four siblings for a family photo.
Instead his dad pulled into Niles Home for Children’s parking lot, which had, among other things, a bounce house, snow cones and a face-painting booth set up in front.
A carnival? Nope. His dad, Eric Charles-Gallo, led the family to the basement, where the real surprise lay. Tables displayed tons of trikes, puzzles and dolls. Charles-Gallo told his adopted sons and daughter to pick out two toys, no strings attached. And that was when the fun began.
As former foster kids, Blake and his siblings were just some of the 600 Kansas City-area children who received some of the 9,000 toys donated by the Toy Industry Foundation at an event sponsored by the National Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) Association. Most of the kids who attended the event were abused and neglected and were under court supervision, said Michael Piraino, CASA’s national CEO, who attended the event.
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The primary goal was to provide a day of stress-free fun for the foster families.
“It’s a crying shame that kids in foster care systems don’t get that more often than they do,” Piraino said. “If you think through all the traumas they’ve been through: They’ve been yanked out of their homes, they’ve been moved around in foster care, they don’t know where their final home is going to be. Well, play is a release from that.”
When kids are moved from home to home, toys often get left behind in the shuffle, said Martha Gershun, the Jackson County CASA executive director.
Marisa Medina, the Toy Industry Foundation manager, said, “They need to have something that’s all their own and belongs to them.”
The Charles-Gallo family trooped out of the basement with arms full.
“They got down here and they went crazy,” Charles-Gallo said. “I tried to rein them in, but they were like, ‘I want this, I want that.’”
Piraino said he hoped the event would attract more CASA volunteers. Missouri and Kansas have hit all-time highs for kids in the foster care system. CASA in Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties can represent only about 1,500 kids, which is about a third of the kids in the system areawide.
“There’s a message that goes with the toys and that’s, ‘We believe in these kids,’” Piraino said.
Margo Bell of Richmond, Kan., south of Ottawa, watched as her foster daughter, Genesis, 7, chose from the array of toys around her. Bell said her four foster kids don’t get toys often, so they don’t really know how to choose what they want.
Genesis finally settled on a Monster High purse — due to her love of zombies — and a Glamour Girls and Puppies set. The little “doggies” reminded her of her dog, Angel.
“She was my cuddle puppy, but she got run over,” Genesis said.
As she hugged the set to her chest, Genesis could use only one word to describe how she felt: happy. She and her foster brother even sang the chorus to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” as they left the toy-filled gym.
How to help
CASA is short on volunteers. Volunteers spend 10 hours a month meeting with the child, speaking with those involved and attending meetings or court hearings. For more information, visit casakc.org, call Jackson County CASA at 816-984-8204 or call CASA of Johnson & Wyandotte Counties at 913-715-4040.