There are many parts that make up the whole. In the ideal family situation, that “whole” includes parents and the unconditional love they show their children—love that shows up in situations big and small, from nights spent comforting kids when they’re sick, to the Valentine treats, birthday cakes, holiday gifts, and myriad rewards celebrating milestones along the way. But for hundreds of thousands of children in this country, this ideal “whole” is missing huge parts.
Annie McAveeney has made it her life purpose to fill those parts in.
After a life-changing incident occurred, long-time Lake Forest resident McAveeney left a successful career as a retail store owner and private-label clothing designer to become a change agent in the lives of children in jeopardy.
The statistics are staggering, she says. “There are more than 120,000 orphans in America, and another 400,000 children live without permanent families. Many of these children ‘age out’ of the foster care system and become homeless, or suffer in abuse situations that force them onto the streets. On average, one out of four street youth are forced into trafficking within 72 hours after they’ve run away or become homeless.”
McAveeney made a promise: “To do all I could to help children who needed safety, care, and to feel valued.”
In the years since, she has done this privately, taking more than a dozen children in to her family’s home as a “safe family” short-term foster care provider, and as a mentor for at-risk youth and their parents. And she has done it publicly, through the work of Fill A Heart 4 Kids (FAH4K) the organization the McAveeney family founded in 2008, to gift foster children living in youth facilities and unaccompanied homeless youth with many of the tangibles that children’s homes and shelters lack resources to provide. (FAH4K received 501C3 status in 2015.)
This includes everything from FAH4K survival backpacks filled with items to
help homeless youth (weather shield blankets, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet
paper, wipes, health snacks, and water bottles) to end-of-the-school-year packages filled with flip-flops, pens and colored pencils, games, and Dunkin’ Donut gift cards for summer treats.
While the survival backpacks are distributed year-round, FAH4K has also set up seasonal projects to gather and distribute the gifts.
“These programs give individuals who want to help—corporations, associations, schools, and private citizens—an easy, organized way to do that,” McAveeney explains.
There is “Project Boo” which gives volunteers the opportunity to provide for a Trick-or-Treat event at children’s institutions, or, to buy the kids Halloween costumes. “Project Holidays” centers on gathering warm blankets and new coats for the kids, filling stockings with useful goodies like Chapstick, hats, and mittens. And “Project Valentine” fills gift bags with candy, snacks, and art supplies.
“At first glance,” says Annie “You may think giving Valentines treat bags or Easter baskets to children is ‘fluff.’ But imagine if your children never got a Valentine, or even their own birthday cake? We have received beautiful and sometimes heartbreaking thank-you notes from the children who have re- ceived these gifts saying things like, ‘Thank you. Please don’t forget about me. Please come back again.’ Or, ‘I knew there was somebody out there who loved me!’”
Each one of the tangibles FAH4K gives builds a bit of space for important intangibles to grow: self-worth, a sense of value, the feeling that someone cares, and hope for a more secure future.
McAveeney started the journey that led to establishing FAH4K by doing volunteer work at Lydia Home, a nonprofit foster care and residential treat-ment center for children in Chicago. That led her family to provide six months of care to one of Lydia Home’s babies as part of the center’s “Safe Families for Children” program. During that time, McAveeney and her husband Jay, Global Chief Financial Officer at Reed Smith in Chicago, and their two girls, Ellorie and Lilly, poured themselves into caring for the baby and in developing a relationship with the child’s mother.
“At the end of that six months, even though my girls were happy that the baby was being reunited with his mother, they were heartbroken that he couldn’t stay with us.The girls decided to do something meaningful in the face of that. On their own, they got friends together and filled treat bags with candy and made homemade cards for each one of the children at Lydia Home.”
Out of that simple gesture, FAH4K was born.
Currently, the items gathered through the various projects are distributed to foster children and unaccompanied homeless youth in Illinois, through association with carefully vetted recipient organizations. And there are new projects being considered to connect skilled and carefully screened teachers with FAH4K programs, allowing them to donate tutoring, instruction in dance, the arts, and athletic training.
“We would like to meet the needs of every group home in the state,” she says. “And then, start spreading nationally.”
McAveeney is working with a private donor skilled in web development to add more information, links, and marketing power to the FAH4K website. The new website will launch in August. As part of that, McAveeney is especially excited to be partnering with a video production company that will be animating a series of hope building children’s stories she wrote, to be released one by one on the website. Each video release will link to a soon-to-come FAH4K store, featuring special items from each of the stories.
“We are beyond excited about all we are doing with the help of so many volunteers,” McAveeney concludes. “Helping a child in need to feel loved and remembered … well, what could be more meaningful than that?”
For information about volunteering and partnerships, please visit fillaheart4kids.org.