Tina Pham spent the morning of Dec. 16 hauling boxes and carts full of donations from each campus dining center to the Cather Dining Center, where four additional volunteers were helping to organize and load the items into three vehicles.
Pham is well-acquainted with the process, but she was fielding calls and texts affirming that she had more stops to make, thanks to the generosity of co-workers.
“We invited everyone to participate — it’s not just Dining Services, and we shared the list of needs and reminded everyone that even the smallest thing makes a difference — but wow,” said Pham, an administrative support associate with Dining Services.
Hundreds of items — from shampoo and toothpaste to fleece blankets, pillows and towels — were organized into plastic crates, boxes and bags that filled a trunk and two fold-down SUV cargo spaces. The crew then drove to South 25th Street, near Randolph Street, in the hopes of bringing smiles to faces of children in foster care.
Twice a year, including around the holidays, the Dining Staff Council organizes a service project to benefit a local organization. The council solicits nominations and invites dining employees to vote on which organization will benefit from the holiday cheer of staff who choose to participate. Past years have benefited the Friendship Home and Capital Humane Society. This year, staff chose the Foster Care Closet, based on a nomination from Megan Thomazin, a team leader with East Campus Dining Center.
Thomazin was aware of the organization because of a friend who fosters children.
“She has had a few of her kids come through the closet, and is so thankful for it,” Thomazin said.
The Foster Care Closet serves 91 of Nebraska’s 93 counties, and approximately 1,400 children relied on the closet in the last year. The effort began in Lincoln in 2006, when founder and executive director Leigh Esau opened the first “store,” based on her own experiences as a child in foster care and as a foster parent. The effort has grown to include locations in North Platte, Kearney and Beatrice, with mobile closets hosted periodically throughout the state.
The mission of the Foster Care Closet is to provide free, new clothing and other items to children in foster care. Those placed in foster care — at any hour of the day — come to the closet, receive a meal and are able to shop. Twice a year, any child of any age in foster care is also invited to “shop” at one of the locations or mobile closets. Through a contract with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, each child is guaranteed five shirts, five bottoms, a pair of shoes, a seasonally appropriate coat, and undergarments per visit.
But often, it’s the items not guaranteed that really help a child through the trauma they’re experiencing, said Tim Balzer, associate director of Foster Care Closet. That’s where donors like those from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln play an important role.
“(Without donations like this), we just wouldn’t have them,” Balzer said. “Our contract with the state only helps pay for clothing, so having donations of personal care items, toys, blankets and stuffed animals helps those kids feel like a little bit of their dignity is restored. Being in crisis, taken from your home and transitioning to a new place, new people, is traumatizing enough. We want to make sure those kids have their needs met, so they can focus on building those new relationships.
“The things that the kids really gravitate toward, even though they come with only the clothes on their back, are blankets and stuffed animals — items that bring them comfort. It is amazing, the joy they get from these things.”
Employees and even some students gave generously to the drive, with dining staff leading the way.
“We live for serving others,” Thomazin said. “If you are working in dining on campus, I think you have to be service-oriented.”
Staff at the Foster Care Closet were extremely grateful and overjoyed.
“This is incredible,” Esau said, as she took in the variety and quantity of items from the closet’s needs list. “It will make a huge difference.”
Balzer said the closet has received wonderful support from university groups in the past year. The sorority Alpha Xi Delta adopted the organization for their philanthropic efforts this academic year, dedicating at least eight hours a week in volunteer time and raising $11,000. And the Honors Program plans to have two interns work with the organization in the spring.