THERE IS A SINCERITY and a tenderness in the voice of Annie McAveeney, as if you can feel her giving heart within the sound of each of her thoughtful words. But when she speaks of the children that have been helped, thanks to the work of her family’s Fill a Heart 4 Kids foundation, that sincere and tender voice cannot help but fill any room with an abundance of love.
Take, for example, the story she tells of a little boy.
Despite his young age, his life story had already been filled with far too much pain and abuse. But there he was, sitting in his room in a group home with more kids with similar stories to his, just trying to find a way to keep going amidst a world of uncertainty.
“Every single child that we help receives a sweet handmade card from our wonderful volunteers, so for some of the kids in our program, their bedrooms are lined with our cards, resembling wallpaper in a way,” remembers McAveeney, who serves as co-founder for the nonprofit. “I was at foster group home doing an assessment to see what updates we could help make, and I walked by his room, and I saw the first card my daughter and I made, taped to his wall. I gasped and said, ‘that’s our card.’”
McAveeney struggles to keep her composure over the mere recollection.
“He said to me, ‘every morning I wake up, it’s the first thing I see, and I know there is a mom out there who loves me.”
It is a moment that she will not forget, and a moment made possible through the loving actions of volunteers and donors who come together throughout the year to help fulfill the needs of over 1,300 children including the children living at Lydia Home in Chicago.
“Fill a Heart 4 Kids is such a blessing to the children and staff at Lydia Home,” explains Lydia Home’s Director of Programs Jon Ebersole. “They create activities like painting benches and birdhouses, and they recently organized an elf parade complete with s’mores and a hot chocolate bar. They provide clothes, coats, and gifts but most importantly, they provide love. Led by Annie (McAveeney) and her tireless example, she and her volunteers show kindness and respect consistently, which is a healing balm to the children at Lydia Home who have been mistreated.”
It is enough to make McAveeney blush.
“I don’t view Fill a Heart 4 Kids as my family’s foundation, but as all of our foundation,” she says quietly. “This is our community’s charity. The Lake Forest and Lake Bluff community are treasures to us. We have built this together and we all should be immensely proud.”
Granted, the ongoing pandemic has had a direct effect on the inner workings of the longtime foundation, as the needs within the community continue to grow as COVID-19 rages on.
“We never tapped the brakes,” explains McAveeney, who began the foundation from her living room table back in 2008. “In fact, over the past year, we accelerated. Our doors have been open seven days a week. We continue to provide thousands of meals to homeless children some living in basements and garages and motels without kitchens. We partner with social workers and schools to give children educational resources, winter gear, Survival BacPacs™, PPE, necessities and dignity. We could not do our important work without our dedicated Board and our wonderful community.”
Indeed, Fill a Heart 4 Kids made the recent holidays far happier for many, with the charitable organization creating a Santa’s Workshop within a donated pop-up space in Lake Forest’s Market Square shopping center in which families could come and fill stockings for the less fortunate. “None of this would have been possible without the caring owners of Market Square. Their heartfelt support made it possible for over 2,000 children to experience the joy of giving and or receiving.
“We were booked seven days a week,” remembers McAveeney. “We had a waiting list of over 500 families that wanted to be a part of Project Elf. Families throughout the Chicagoland area, signed up for a 30 minute Elf experience and left knowing they helped children.”
Of course, in year’s past, the Christmas lists of the children were filled with toys and gadgets. Yet, last year’s lists seemed to indicate that the situation for so many was far more dire.
“2020 was so different,” remembers McAveeney. “Our children asked for items such as food and food gift cards, toiletries and winter coats, and everyone seemed to be asking for blankets to keep them warm. You can’t put into words the needs of these children. It was heartbreaking.”
While Market Square originally donated the space for the holidays, they have now extended a wonderful opportunity to Fill a Heart 4 Kids to operate at 270 Market Square through May of 2021, and in turn, the community can continue to turn out to help.
“One of the greatest gifts that we can give Market Square and our community is to show how appreciative we are,” McAveeney explains. “We want to help all of our children get through this difficult time, so we try to create as much happiness and magic and joy—not only for children who are in crisis that need us desperately, but for all of our children. It’s our way of saying thank you. When times are difficult, you still can do something beautiful, so life becomes joyful again.”
In the coming months, Fill a Heart 4 Kids will continue to spread that joy not only during their well-known Project Valentine but also via endeavors such as “Project Hop,” in which Fill a Heart 4 Kids has a goal to fill over 3,000 Easter baskets for foster children living in group homes and for children struggling with extreme poverty, and Project Awesome, where each child will be recognized for the effort her or she made during the recent school year.
And yes, the need has never been greater.
“Our board is laser focused on how we spend our resources,” says McAveeney. “We constantly have social workers and teachers walking into our Market Square location, informing us of more children who need our help. We hand deliver 85 percent of our weekly donations, which is a lot of work for our dedicated Board and volunteer Charlie Wilson, but we want to make absolutely sure all eyes are on our donations, and that they are going directly to the children.”
But McAveeney admits that she cannot do it alone. And luckily, she never has.
“Our Board, caring volunteers and donors come in from everywhere, from Libertyville, Oak Brook to Chicago to Wilmette to help, along with the amazing people in our own community,” says McAveeney. “They come here and comment on how charming, vibrant, and beautiful our town is. One person recently said that they felt like they were ‘wrapped in love’ every time they came here and I couldn’t agree more. I feel the exact same way … and I know our kids do too.”