Imagine you're living on the streets of Chicago, exposed to elements, trying to find a way to stay warm
after running away from an abusive situation at home. Imagine it's below freezing, the snow is falling,
you don't have a warm coat or blanket and you've only got $6 in your pocket. Imagine you're only 12
years old and want to stay in school and you don't want anyone to know you're living on the streets.
Imagine you go to a shelter and it's full, and you don't know where else to turn. Imagine you meet some
kids who tell you about an opportunity to make some money… What would you do?
This isn't an imaginary scenario by any means. It's estimated that 1.3 million children in public schools
across the U.S. are homeless, of which over 20,000 are in Illinois. Nearly 2.5 million youth in the U.S. are
homeless or face a period a homelessness each year.
The saying, "There, but for the grace of God, go I" comes to mind. We're all born into different
circumstances and situations – by the luck of the draw, karma or Divine will, some of us grow up in
warm, happy, loving families, and others have parents who wind up in jail and may not have any family
members in a position to take them in. There are many ways children wind up under the Department of
Children and Family Services'; purveyance, or on the streets making themselves invisible to elude the
system. Approximately 17,920 children are in DCFS custody in Illinois, and over 691,000 were served by
Child Welfare System programs throughout the U.S. in 2017.
We all have formative memories. These may come from scoring the winning basket on the court or
facing a judge in family court, living in a suburban four-bedroom home with loving parents — or sharing a
room in a group home, or getting shuttled from one home to another in hopes that one will stick.
Inconsistency in their home life takes a toll on foster children, leaving them at greater risk of falling
behind academically or dropping out of school.
Annie McAveeney, founder and the driving force behind Fill a Heart 4 Kids, specializes in creating pivotal moments and memorable positive experiences for children and teens. Exuding energy, passion and purpose, McAveeney devotes her time to helping children in desperate need. "We offer typical experiences that these kids are robbed of, like birthday
parties, holiday gifts, and trips to the movies,” said McAveeney. "We do programs for every holiday so
they know they're loved and not forgotten."
For the past 12 years, the McAveeney family and Fill a Heart 4 Kids (FAH4K) have been providing those
life-changing memories for thousands of homeless children and children in the foster care system in the
Chicagoland area. Being a Safe Family Mom, the idea sprang from her desire to cheer up her daughters after their first foster son –who had lived with them for six months –went back to live with his biological
family. The McAveeney family had all grown very attached to him and his mom, and while the goal of
the Safe Families for Kids program, as well as the foster care system, is reunification whenever possible,
letting go is still difficult. "I suggested that we do something to help others,” said McAveeney. “There are thousands of kids in group homes, shelters and family placements in foster care. These programs are severely underfunded.
They have no money to spare for extras.”
Her family made 48 Valentine's Day hearts and delivered them to group homes in their area. And with
this, Fill a Heart 4 Kids was born. Over the past 12 years, the organization has grown exponentially with
over 6,000 volunteers in 2018. "About 50% of our volunteers are kids. We partner with organizations
and corporations, and schools, Girl Scout troupes, churches and temples all bring groups to volunteer,"
she said. “It's a meaningful experience for the kids and teens who volunteer to give to other kids and see
the impact they can have on a child’s life.”
They've hired their first staff member, an executive director with fundraising experience, Denise O'Handley. O'Handley, turned to GrantWatch, to see if they could find a grant to increase their operations. Some of the organization’s current ongoing programs include: Locker Homes 4 Homeless Kids, so they can store their belongings while at work or school; Survival BacPacs 4 Homeless Kids, filled with basic necessities; Project Warm and Project CoCoa, both which provide coats and other supplies to help keep kids warm during the winter months; food Gift Cards 4 Homeless Kids, so they can get off the streets and eat with dignity, Project Smart, which provides school supplies to kids year-round; and a Pilot Work Program to teach foster children new skills.
"We serve about 1300 children who are homeless or in foster care in the Chicago area. Of these, about 850 are in group homes or private home placements and about 500 are homeless,” said McAveeney. “Many are homeless due to aging out of the system and not being able to afford to pay rent. Eighty percent of the kids in our program were either abandoned or have been abused, molested or trafficked by family members. On average, one out every four unaccompanied homeless kids is trafficked within 72 hours. We want to give kids experiences and the necessary tools so they can have a brighter future," said McAveeney.
Over six years after that initial Valentine's Day, Annie saw a Valentine's Day heart hanging on the wall in a child's room that she knew she'd made that first day. The child told her that they looked at that heart first when they opened their eyes every morning and knew that they were loved. Such a small token as a valentine's day card or a birthday cake can make a huge difference in a child's life.
"These kids want to be loved so badly. They need to learn to build relationships so that they'll be good parents when the time comes,” she said.
Over the years, the McAveeney's have hosted many children as a "Safe Family for Children." This means they don't take any governmental assistance for the children who come to live with them. The children they host are cared for just like their own children. They take on all financial aspects, such as feeding and clothing them. “It’s a privilege to walk beside the biological parents and see the transformation,” said McAveeney.
Less than 3% of children in the foster care system earn a college degree. Positive childhood experiences such as getting placed with a solid, loving family for even a few months and knowing that someone cares can have a huge impact. If you’re a parent, teacher, administrator, or nonprofit, remember, each moment can be an inspirational experience. You never know which will become pivotal moments that shape the course of their lives or set them on their life's path. For more information, or to support Fill a Heart 4 Kids, see: https://www.fillaheart4kids.org/.
To help create special memories for children and those in need, go to GrantWatch.com, which has grants for children, education, community, out of school youth and more.
About the Author: The author is a staff writer for GrantNews.