A teenage boy wakes up and sees the first Valentine’s Day card he’d ever received hanging on the wall in his room. He’d put it there. Maybe he was a foster child.
Or a child on the cusp of homelessness.
Or a son who’d endured horrific rounds of abuse.
The boy blinks. The boy sees the Valentine’s Day card again. The boy smiles.
The card—featuring heartfelt, handwritten messages from a volunteer at Lake Forestbased Fill a Heart 4 Kids, as part of the organization’s annual Project Valentine—reminds him that somebody had thought about him and cared about him. The boy’s smile grows.
So does his hope.
A moment like that is one that continues to drive the spirit behind Fill a Heart 4 Kids, launched in 2008 by the forever-kindhearted and highly energetic Annie McAveeney, a Lake Forest resident, a mother of two (Ellorie, 28, and Lilly, 24), and a “mother” of too-manyto-count children in need.
Fill a Heart 4 Kids (FAH4K) gives unaccompanied homeless children and foster children educational support, necessities, and positive experiences to help their hearts heal and restore dignity so they can achieve brighter futures. FAH4K works with 18 children’s homes/facilities in the city and suburbs.
“We don’t want one more group home for children to be shut down in Illinois,” says McAveeney, who, a year before forming the eventual nonprofit, helped out at a children’s home and heard a girl ask her, ‘Could you be my mommy?’ “This matters so much to me, our Fill a Heart 4 Kids. This is my heart and soul. We serve the worst 4 percent of the cases. These children are so valuable and so worthy of being loved and having a family.”
Fill a Heart 4 Kids’ first initiative, fittingly, was its Project Valentine 13 years ago. This year’s Project Valentine began January 15 and ends February 13. FAH4K plans to distribute thousands of care packages—prepared by McAveeney, her tireless staff of volunteers, and local “shoppers”/volunteers at FAH4K’s pop-up shop at 270 Market Square (formerly the home of Sweet Pete’s in Lake Forest)—to group homes/facilities for foster kids.
Each care package contains pajamas, socks, toiletries, candy, and coloring books, among other items, and a priceless handwritten note.
“You are a star!” one note starts. “From a friend.”
On February 13, Project Valentine’s 30-vehicle car parade is scheduled to snake near a facility that provides hope, healing, and home for children in Chicago, before motoring to locations in North Chicago, Waukegan, and Lake Villa. The cars’ trunks will be packed with Valentine gift bags for hundreds of children.
“All these children, they’re used to getting hand-me-downs,” says McAveeney, a graduate of Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest. “What if they got something new? Imagine their faces when they receive something, say clothing, that nobody else had ever worn. We’ve seen those faces—they light up, instantly. These kids are in shock. They say, ‘Wait, this is for me? Really?’ My daughter Lilly, before we started Fill A Heart 4 Kids, asked me one day, ‘How can we make them feel loved?’ ”
A boy named Tyron received food gift cards from FAH4K and wrote, “Thank you, heart people. I’m thankful for the cards. I couldn’t make it without you.”
Read that note and many more in FAH4K’s pop-up shop. But a word of warning before entering the location: Be prepared to be showered with love and warmth and a burst of colors that makes the brightest rainbow appear … bland. The vast bouquets of normal and heart-shaped balloons—red, pink, white, purple, lavender—attract your eyes first. They’re voluminous to some, balloon-inous to others. They’re there thanks to FAH4K Board Member Helen Gerbin and her organic balloon arts and events venture. Stuffed animals of various sizes and countenances, along with Fill a Heart 4 Kids hats, rest on shelves.
If happiness fails to lift you within minutes, check your pulse.
“Annie is an extremely visual person; she’s a landscape artist and a former retail store owner,” says Fill a Heart 4 Kids Vice President and Board Member Margie Alpert, who moved from Barrington to Deerfield four years ago and wanted to join FAH4K as soon as she heard about its mission. “Her Fill a Heart 4 Kids store is adorable and whimsical.
“Annie,” she adds, “never stops. Does the job of 10 people. Her heart is so big, and she cares so much for these kids. Totally invested in helping them achieve brighter futures—that’s Annie.”
Market Square ownership recently extended FAH4K’s shop lease. That means FAH4K gets to remain at its colorful base for Project Hop (an Easter-themed endeavor, March 1-April 15) and Project Flip Flop (May 1-June 1, to help children celebrate their report card).
“It’s magical inside that store,” says Christiane Fischer, a senior asset manager at Mid-America. “On behalf of Market Square, my heart is full, knowing what Annie and her group are doing for children in need.”
Visit fillaheart4kids.org for more information. Near the bottom of the main page, choose Fill a Heart 4 Kids as your charity by clicking the AmazonSmile box. Your help makes it possible to give $10 fast food gift cards to help homeless kids get off the street at night, feel safer, and eat a warm meal with dignity.