Helen’s Hope Chest: Fulfilling the dreams of foster children

Our second tour with Mesa Leadership 2016 was to Helen’s Hope Chest, a special place that is part of Mesa United Way.

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Helen’s Hope Chest recently moved into a beautiful, new building at 126 E. University Drive.

What is Helen’s Hope Chest?

“Helen’s Hope Chest fulfills the dreams of thousands of foster children from throughout the East Valley and beyond by providing them with quality clothing, school supplies, books, gift cards, toys, games and more at no cost to their foster parents” (from the website).

Janice Walker explains how Helen's Hope Chest blesses the lives of local foster children.
Janice Walker explains how Helen’s Hope Chest blesses the lives of local foster and kinship care children.

Basically, kids enter the foster care system and the foster families do their best to try to take care of the basic necessities. Helen’s Hope Chest provides a free shopping center for foster children so they can “shop” and pick out what they need.

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The receptionist desk and the quote that greets you upon entering the building.

Foster children and their families are able to come into the facility and receive clothes, shoes, books, school supplies and toys.

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Janice Walker gave members of the Mesa Leadership class a tour Aug. 31.

Around 600 children are helped each month with five new outfits.

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The boys section is always much more sparse, says Walker. Donations of new or gently used boys clothes are greatly needed! Especially needed is new boys socks and underwear.

Who is Helen? “Helen’s Hope Chest memorializes the life of Helen Paula Simmons, a former foster child who managed to raise a family of her own despite difficult circumstances. Helen and her brother, Walter, were foster children in the 1930s.  They lived with the same foster parents for years but were never adopted. Simmons passed away in June 2009.  Helen’s Hope Chest honors her memory with a place where children in foster care will have their own “store” where they can pick out whatever they need at no cost. Helen’s family was looking for a way to memorialize Helen Simmons and believes their mom would be proud of Helen’s Hope Chest” (from the website).

Helen Paula Simmons (photo from Helen's Hope Chest website).
Helen Paula Simmons (photo from Helen’s Hope Chest website).

There is also a room called John’s Room that is stocked with toys so the children can pick something out for their birthday.

Walker explains how John's Room was named for the son of Chief of Staff to Governor Doug Ducey Kirk Adams. John passed away when he was an infant and the family started the toy room in his honor.
Walker explains how John’s Room was named for the son of Kirk Adams, chief of staff to Governor Doug Ducey. John passed away when he was an infant and the family started the toy room in his honor.
Toys and games fill the room.
Toys and games fill John’s Room.

Another big part of Helen’s Hope Chest is JaKelle’s Christmas Box, which was started in 2011 by the family of JaKelle Westergard, who passed away at age 17. Donated toys during the holidays make these foster children’s Christmas bright! Nearly 3,000 children were blessed last year by donations to JaKelle’s Christmas Box!

JaKelle Westergard (photo from website).
JaKelle Westergard (photo from website).

See more about JaKelle and the Christmas gift program at: http://www.mesaunitedway.org/jakelles-christmas-box

Volunteers help sort, clean and organize the donated clothes and other items.
Volunteers help sort, clean and organize the donated clothes and other items.

Did you know? Helen’s Hope Chest and JaKelle’s Christmas Box run from donations and volunteers who make it all possible.

The center relies on donations from community members to bless the lives of local families.
The center relies on donations from community members to bless the lives of local families.

Background: “In late 2009, following a significant cut in state funding for foster families, Mesa United Way seized the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of foster and kinship children and youth and their families. A small office was set up like a boutique, offering young people an opportunity to shop for clothing and to receive other necessary items like shoes, hygiene items, backpacks, school supplies and books as well as birthday gifts. In 2010, the first full year of operation for Helen’s Hope Chest, 1,402 children and youth were served” (from Arizona Republic article, May 7, 2015).

Children can also pick books from donated books in the Book Nook.
Children can also pick books from donated books in the Book Nook.
Children are also able to pick their very own beautiful handmade quilt.
Children get to pick their very own beautiful handmade quilt.
And they can choose a lovingly made bag for their clothing.
And they can choose a lovingly made bag for their clothing.
There is even a fun play area for children to enjoy while a parent shops.
There is even a fun play area for children to enjoy while a parent shops.

For more information on Helen’s Hope Chest or donation needs, go to: http://www.mesaunitedway.org/helens-hope-chest-1

Members of the Mesa Leadership class who attended the tour Aug. 31.
Members of the Mesa Leadership class who attended the tour Aug. 31.
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Visiting AZBrainfood: Helping hungry children

So as part of the Mesa Leadership Program we have lots of tours of programs and facilities around our community. The first one was this morning and we visited AZBrainfood, a nonprofit organization that packs bags of food each week for needy elementary students to take home over the weekend.

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An inspirational sign on the wall, and, it really does!

AZBrainfood was started in 2009 by a concerned local mom, Ruth Collins, who found out from a teacher that some students would come to school hungry Monday mornings.

AZBrainfood founder Ruth Collins gives an overview of the organization and how they help local school children.
AZBrainfood founder Ruth Collins gives an overview of the organization and how they help local school children.

The program grew from a few students at two schools the first year to more than 2,600 this year throughout Mesa.

A list of the number of children needing weekend bags of food for each public elementary school in Mesa.
A list of the number of children needing weekend bags of food for each public elementary school in Mesa.

Fast Fact: “Arizona Brainfood is a non-profit organization that discreetly provides a backpack of food to feed hungry school children on the weekends. We hope that each child will return to school every Monday mentally aware and physically able to concentrate” (from the website).

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The door at the back of the building has magnetic signs for each school, which are put on cars in the parking lot so the tubs can be loaded for delivery.

It’s all run completely by volunteers and donations and anyone who wants to help pack the bags shows up at 8:30 a.m. Thursdays at their warehouse, provided by Mesa Public Schools, at 325 E. McKellips.

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Volunteers fill bags of food, including easy-open ravioli, Spaghettios or stew; juice boxes; shelf-stable milk; Easy Mac; plastic fruit cups; individual cereals; power bars/granola bars; non-refrigerated pudding; canned green beans and canned pork and beans.

Did you know? Sixty-five percent of Mesa’s elementary-aged children qualify for the federal program of free or reduced lunch at school. For some of these children, their only food comes from the school lunch programs. Unfortunately, many have little or no food to eat on the weekends (from the website).

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More than 2,600 elementary school children are helped each week in Mesa alone. Some neighboring school districts also use the items and facilities for other needy children in the East Valley.

For more information on AZBrainfood or how to donate, visit the website: http://www.azbrainfood.org/

The Mesa Leadership class helped pack bags after the tour.
Members of the Mesa Leadership class who helped pack bags after the tour.

Celebration of Mesa’s Light Rail Extension

Mesa’s Light Rail extension officially opened Saturday, Aug. 22, with a big celebration downtown and new stations along Main Street with stops at Alma School, Country Club, Center and Mesa Drive.

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All aboard! The first official run of the day!
Volunteering at Mesa Light Rail extension celebration
Volunteering at Mesa’s Light Rail extension celebration in the information booth near Country Club Station.
With Lynn Runyan
Making new friends — with Mesa Leadership classmate Lynn Runyan — and enjoying 100+ temps! Oh, boy, it was a warm day!

Class 1: Mesa Leadership Program begins a new year; participants encouraged to get involved in community

By Jill Adair

Twenty-six adults of various ages and professions gathered on their first day of class with a similar goal in mind: Learn more about Mesa and get involved.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and know nothing about the inner workings of Mesa,” said Tawnya Christensen, who works in community relations at Fellowship Square, a senior living facility. “I thought I could come here and learn more and commit myself to paying it forward – get on a board or do something that’s helpful.”

Mesa Leadership is a program of the Mesa Chamber of Commerce. The first class was held Friday, Aug. 7, and the program continues once a month in all-day seminars through April, with graduation held in May. Upcoming activities include facility tours, ride-alongs with police and fire and shadowing opportunities with community leaders. Its purpose is to cultivate leadership through education, exposure to the community and interaction between class members.

“Our ultimate goal is to prepare students for a personal journey along the wonderful and rewarding path to community service,” according to the website at mesaleadership.org.

“There are a lot of leadership programs out there but what I love about this one is that it is so specifically for Mesa,” said Melissa Jones, who serves as program chair this year.

Jones, who graduated from the program in 2011, said she sees a lot of alumni getting involved in the community after being a part of this program.

“Every one of the participants wants to be involved in the community in a way that meets their talents and interests,” she said.

The common denominator among a group so diverse is each “wants to make their community a better place,” Jones said.

Since the program was started in the early 1980s, nearly 700 have graduated. Alumni include many current and former city council members and various board members and community volunteers.

This year’s participants include a police officer, fitness specialist, lawyer, retired school teacher, Relay for Life organizer, journalist, real estate and insurance agents, community volunteers, small business owners or employees, community relations specialists and  employees of the city of Mesa and Salt River Project.

The first class, focusing on “Mesa Past and Present,” began with a presentation from local historian Vic Linoff, who showed a slideshow, “Changing Facades of Mesa.”

“To be an effective leader for the future you should know where you came from,” said Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation.
“To be an effective leader for the future you should know where you came from,” said Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation.

The takeaway from his presentation was that many of Mesa’s interesting and historical buildings have been razed for less desirable, more modern structures. The future of some that survived are still in question.

Historical preservation can protect the past, save at-risk neighborhoods and have a positive impact on the local economy, Linoff said.

Mesa City Manager Chris Brady spoke to the group, briefly explaining Mesa’s council-manager form of government, city services and what he sees for the future.

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Mesa City Manager Chris Brady gives an overview of how the city works to participants at the first class of the 2016 Mesa Leadership Program. Photo by Jill Adair

Since January 2006, Brady serves as the chief administrative officer of more than 3,500 employees with an annual operating and capital budget of $1.6 billion, and serves a city population of nearly one-half million. Mesa is Arizona’s third largest city and is 39th in the nation.

While the state continues to struggle to improve economically, Mesa is leading in building permits this year, according to Brady.

“That shows us a sign that people are attracted to come to Mesa to live,” he said.

But, as Brady pointed out, growing residential neighborhoods doesn’t necessarily pay the bills; the most important thing to sustain a city is having good jobs where people can work, live and shop in the community.

“We’ve got to grow jobs,” he said. “We’ve got to grow the ratio of jobs to households and that’s how we’ll sustain ourselves. I believe that once we do that, we can keep our neighborhoods safe and provide quality parks for them and then other commercial retail will follow that.”

He discussed the distinct areas of the city, outlining the city’s contribution to encouraging growth of private-sector businesses and jobs. Class members were then given time to ask Brady questions.

Michelle Streeter from Visit Mesa, the city’s visitor and tourism office, showed several videos that are used in promotional events and highlighted the city’s efforts around the world to promote tourism, which is important to the city’s revenue and future, according to Streeter.

She says promotion of Mesa can start at home.

“Start owning where you are from,” she said. “Say Mesa, not Phoenix. Have a sense of pride of where you are from. Tell others why you live here.”

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Related Links:

Mesa Leadership Program: http://mesaleadership.org/

Mesa Preservation Foundation: https://www.facebook.com/mesapreservationfoundation

City Manager’s Office: http://mesaaz.gov/city-hall/city-manager-s-office

Visit Mesa: www.visitmesa.com