Can you imagine as a kid not wanting to wake up on Christmas morning because of the fear there wouldn’t be any presents to open?
Some foster children in Michigan have seen that fear become a reality. It’s heart-wrenching to think about.
But one Macomb County woman decided to do something about it. Theresa Toia didn’t set out to create a non-profit a decade ago. She was just trying to drop off some gifts for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have had a Christmas.
Now this time of year she spends weeks in a room that looks like Santa’s workshop. Toys galore and piles of presents. But in place of gleeful elves, you see expert gift-wrappers.
And they’re all volunteers there to help Friends of Foster Kids.
"Last year we wrapped over 18,000 gifts,” said Theresa Toia.
Toia is the brainchild behind this bustling non-profit operation. Last year, all those gifts went to more than 1400 foster children in Macomb and Oakland Counties.
"They contact us when there's need, so we fill it,” said Toia. “Last year, I was at the store shopping, and my husband was driving gifts to Novi to drop off with a case worker to make sure it got done."
Toia started what she called the “Spirit of Christmas” program in her living room back in 2006 when her daughter – a case worker at the time – gave her the idea.
"She told me that for the second year in a row that children on her case load had not received a Christmas. And I was stunned. I said, ‘Oh my gosh. That can't happen.’ And she said, ‘Mom, what are you going to do? Buy them all a gift? And I said, ‘If I have to,’” recalled Toia.
But she had no clue how many children were in the foster care system.
"The first year when we took care of 47 children, I was so proud to be bringing stacks for each child of all the gifts wrapped so beautifully, dropping them off. The supervisor said, ‘I wish we had more people like you.’ And I said, ‘Why? I'll just continue doing this every year.’ And he said, ‘We have almost 1200 this year.’ And I almost died,” she said.
After that realization, she started recruiting help – friends, neighbors, local organizations and church groups, and volunteers like Kathy Morehouse.
"These children, we want them to know that there's someone who cares for them. And that they do have meaning for their life, and that they are loved,” said Morehouse – who is now a Board Member.
In 2008, Friends of Foster Kids became an official non-profit. And it’s grown every year.
The Foam Factory in Macomb donates this space for the group’s storage and staging area. All the shelves were donated, too, to hold the many toys and basic necessity items given for the cause.
Theresa Toia fields calls from donors every day. They are committed to transforming each child’s holiday dream into reality.
Volunteers find those toys in their warehouse of donations or donate them themselves.
If a child’s bag is missing even one item they wished for, the request is hung on the angel tree at the front door to be fulfilled.
"Even Xbox and Playstation 4s. Our donors are amazing,” said Toia with a smile.
“It makes us all very happy to know that we’re just a little part of this,” said volunteer and Board Member Linda Roberts. “She always calls us her angels. We’re not. We’re the feather in her wings. Just a feather.”
Toia realizes we cannot prevent the need for foster care, but we can inspire people to come together and have a positive impact on the lives of foster children.
WXYZ is proud to name Theresa Toia as this week’s Detroit 2020 Person of the Week.
If you’d like to sign up to volunteer with Friends of Foster Kids, please email them at email@example.com.
The group is still in need of brand new toys and volunteer gift wrappers this holiday season.
If you’d like to nominate someone to be our Detroit 2020 Person of the Week, please email Alicia Smith at Alicia.firstname.lastname@example.org with “Person of the Week” in the subject line.