For most children, Valentine’s Day means hugs, cards, and candy at school and at home. But for the children in America living without families, it’s a day of heartbreak.
“One little girl told me Valentine’s Day was especially hard because she would go to school and see moms bringing in cupcakes, and she would try to pretend they were her mom so she wouldn’t cry,” says Ann McAveeney, co-founder of Fill a Heart 4 Kids, a nonprofit that works to provide “We Care” packages for children in group homes in Illinois.
The program started in 2008 when McAveeney’s daughter Lilly asked who made Valentine’s Day special for homeless children and kids without moms and dads, and proceeded to put together 48 gift bags with her friends to deliver to children in the Lydia Home for Boys and Girls. Now, with help from a board of 10 women committed to this mission and outreach, Fill a Heart 4 Kids works with 11 children’s homes across the Chicagoland area.
This year, about 750 “We Care” packages for Valentine’s Day were delivered to kids living without the support of family through Fill a Heart 4 Kids, and McAveeney wants that number to grow.
“We would like to make sure every family-less child in Illinois receives a “We Care” package and the message that someone out there cares,” she says.
Aside from Project Valentine’s Day, Fill a Heart 4 Kids also has Project Hop, where they deliver Easter “We Care” packages; Project Birthday, where they make sure kids receive cards and presents on their birthdays; and Project Cuddle, which delivers stuffed animals.
“Right before school, a lot of kids get anxious and they don’t have anyone to snuggle up to, so we send them stuffed animals and write them sweet notes to give them comfort. These personalized cards from our community mean so much to the kids,” McAveeney says. “Fill a Heart 4 Kids brings a mother’s touch.”
It’s not only younger kids who need this extra support; teenagers are often overlooked during these special times.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you’re a child without family you need to be remembered,” McAveeny says. Teenagers need personal goods, clothing items, and beauty and hygiene products. That’s where Fill a Heart 4 Kids comes in. Volunteers reach out to those who can provide these items or purchase them when needed.
Other programs for older kids include days out for ice cream or the movies, game nights, or taking girls out to get manicures. Fill a Heart 4 Kids tries to make kids’ lives as normal as possible so they don’t feel ostracized at school when peers are talking about the latest movies or what they did over the weekend. Things that would normally be bonding experiences with parents, like buying makeup for the first time, are things the program tries to supplement.
“We want to provide family experiences,” says McAveeney, which is why Project Birthday is so important. “Our vision is to make sure every child living in a group home in America is remembered on their birthday.”
Once, during a pool party the organization was throwing, McAveeney found out two girls were celebrating their 16th birthdays. Volunteers went out and bought them a cake and necklaces with their initials on them, and the girls, who had never had a cake on their birthdays before, were overcome with emotion.
“One of them asked me why her initials were on the necklace and I told her because her name is important,” says McAveeney, “and she cried and hugged us because she had never heard anything like that.”
McAveeney says the lack of gifts or special events for children is not because the children’s homes don’t want to give them, but because of lack of resources. These institutions have suffered significant budget cuts over the last decade, and resources go to making sure kids have nutritious meals and comfortable places to sleep first, leaving little left for activities or holiday spending.
To supplement, Fill a Heart 4 Kids has visited children’s homes the night before holidays and decorated the cafeterias so the kids can wake up to balloons and gifts and personalized notes from families that care.
“They say things like, ‘I’ve never felt so loved,’ and ‘will you please come back?,’” says McAveeney. “We’ve received hundreds of thank you notes.”
Many of these children have been through tragedies or have been in institutions almost their entire life. They long to be adopted, but especially as they get older, they lose hope.
So far, Fill a Heart 4 Kids has given out more than 8,500 “We Care” packages, but that number can always increase. People can throw “birthday parties for a purpose,” where their guests bring gift certificates, for example, instead of other presents. These gift certificates can then be donated to Fill a Heart 4 Kids and used to take children and teens to a movie, buy them clothes, or take them to a restaurant.
The organization is always looking for more volunteers to pack and deliver “We Care” packages. The Girl Scouts and the Lake Forest High School wrestling team delivered care packages to group homes.
McAveeney says she is so thankful for the children’s homes she works with, which are full of amazing people with great intentions. She hopes her organization can help fill the gaps where their budgets can’t.
“These kids need to feel remembered so they can have bright, successful futures,” she says.
Those interested in assisting Fill a Heart 4 Kids can donate by sending a check made payable to Fill a Heart 4 Kids, 2549 Waukegan Road, Suite 20, Bannockburn, IL 60015, or visit fillaheart4kids.org, where you can also learn where to donate gift items.