Arizona Helping Hands: Making birthday wishes come true for thousands of kids in foster care

“Laura” had a difficult childhood. She grew up in foster care and was shuffled from one home to the next. She has many memories from her younger years, some good — many not so good.

But looking back, there is one moment she will never forget. She remembers being led into a room. The lights were dimmed, and several small candles were lit. A group of people had gathered. The faces were familiar, but she hadn’t known any of these individuals for very long.

As she drew closer, something amazing happened. They began to sing: “Happy Birthday to Youuu…”

Laura couldn’t believe her ears. This was the first time anyone had ever celebrated her birthday — or more importantly — celebrated her.

Laura was 15 years old. It was one of the best days of her life.

Dan Shufelt, president and CEO of Arizona Helping Hands, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to kids in foster care, says he’s heard many stories like this, and although he is grateful that Laura has this precious moment to look back on, he doesn’t want there to be any more “Lauras.”

“We want these kids to be celebrated,” he says. “We want them to grow up knowing how important and special they are.”

Although the numbers fluctuate, there are currently about 15,000 children in Arizona’s foster care system — a number that remains one of the highest per capita rates in the country.

These children have been removed from their homes for various circumstances, but mostly because of abuse or neglect. The horrors and tragedies they have experienced in their young lives are often almost beyond comprehension, but it’s important to remember this: They are still children. They are innocent, and have been forced into situations through no fault of their own.

The foster families who take in these kids face great challenges meeting the physical and emotional needs of children who have already experienced much pain and loss.

That’s where Arizona Helping Hands comes in.

In 2013, the nonprofit shifted its focus exclusively to kids in the foster care system, starting with its “Safe Place to Sleep” program — providing cribs and beds for children in foster and kinship care.

Since then, they have expanded to providing other basic, essential needs including diapers, clothing and personal care items. The organization holds an annual “Holiday Toy Drive,” and every fall it hosts its annual “Back to School Success” program — providing kids in foster care with backpacks filled with basic school supplies.

For many kids in foster care, the “dream come true” is the Arizona Helping Hands “Birthday Dreams” program, which provides each child with a gift bag, personalized to make every child feel special.

Gifts are chosen based on a child’s age and interests, and every bag includes an age-appropriate book to read. Foster families are also provided with a “Birthday in a Bag,” which is a party kit complete with cake mix, frosting, candles, cake pan, streamers and balloons.

These small gestures may not seem like a lot on the surface, but letting a child know he or she is important and valued is truly a priceless and often life-changing experience.

If you’re ever wondering how you can make a difference, here’s one way you can: Arizona Helping Hands is always in need of financial support and donations and is eligible for the AZ Tax Credit for qualifying Foster Care Charitable Organizations. Donations of $500 from individuals or $1,000 from joint filers are eligible for a dollar-for-dollar credit on state income taxes.

“This is a situation where everyone can do something,” Shufelt says. “And it’s a great way to get your children involved in giving. Next time you go to the store, have your child pick out some items for a child in foster care.”

The drop-off location for Arizona Helping Hands is 3110 E. Thunderbird Road in Phoenix. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Volunteer opportunities are available. Request a “Birthday Dreams” kit for a foster child or donate online.