City Life: Fostering love and thank yous

Imagine that you are 7. You have no idea where your next meal is coming from, your bed is not guaranteed and the parents who are supposed to love you have instead fallen in love with alcohol or another addictive substance. Perhaps you have been abused, like many children in the county.

For you, attending even the Orange County Fair is a dream.

Thousands of children in Orange County don't imagine that terrible life. They are living it.

With luck, they are rescued, and with the help of several county agencies, public and private, they are eventually placed in a foster home. There, parents provide the stability that is essential to their development but which they have never known.

Some foster kids have emotional issues or physical challenges, yet Orange County's foster parents, the local heroes with hearts as big as mountains, take these children in unconditionally.

On July 14, a remarkable event will take place, one that is meant to provide these children with yet another opportunity to experience life as it should be. That day, the county's foster kids and their families will be the only invited guests to A Fair to Remember at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

That day, one day before the fair opens to the rest of us, as many as 7,000 foster kids and their families will have the entire fair to themselves. They will experience the rides, eat the food and get the fabulous fair experience, all free of charge, courtesy of a several local agencies, businesses and private donors. For most of them, it will be their first fair experience.

A Fair to Remember was the brainchild of David Ellis, chairman of the Orange County Fair & Event Center's Board of Directors, who said it came to him while he was driving.

"The first person I called was [OC Fair Board vice chairwoman] Joyce Tucker because of her lengthy involvement in improving children's lives," he said. "I told her the idea is to help foster kids and their families experience the joy of the fair."

Ellis added that he has received tremendous support from his Fair Board colleagues, the county's Department of Children and Family Services, the Orange County Social Services Agency, the O.C. Superior Court system, the O.C. Sheriff's Department and the county's foster family networks.

"Also, county supervisors [John] Moorlach and [Bill] Campbell were early supporters of the event and have helped make it a success," Ellis said.

A Fair to Remember is being underwritten by a combination of sources.

"Our key vendors, Ovations and the carnival operator RCS, have agreed to provide food and entertainment at cost," Ellis said. "Plus, with help from Joyce, we're well on our way to raising $60,000 to cover the expenses.

Staging the event for foster kids means more than raising money and opening the gates. The foster child program has strict guidelines to help protect the privacy of the kids until they are 18.

Though the foster kids will no doubt be touched by their fair experience, foster parents will also receive a much-needed break as well as an overdue "thank you" from the community.

"There is amazing work that foster parents are doing each and every day, and they get pennies for the care that they provide," said Allison Davis Maxon, regional director of Kinship Center, which helps place foster kids.

"And because we never have enough foster families, we tend to overutilize them as a resource. We often are placing high-needs kids who often need so much more than a family can provide. Many times it should be one or two kids in a home and sometimes it's four or five kids."

The foster life is not a burden to Chrissy and Mike Mendoza, who started the foster parent process in January 2004 and brought their first child home seven months later. "Richard" was 15 months old when the Mendozas became his foster parents. But the Mendozas were not his first foster parents.

"Richard was placed with a family who had him for four months, then contacted the social worker because they couldn't handle him," Chrissy said. "We met him on a Tuesday and by Thursday, he was home with us."

Richard is still in their care.

Since Richard, the Mendozas have adopted Johnny, who was 3 when he came home.

"We are very fortunate," Chrissy said. "People tell us that our kids are so lucky, but we tell them that we need them as much as they need us."

On July 14, thanks to some very big hearts in our community, foster families will be showered with fun. It will be one day to be the families they've always knew they could be.

STEVE SMITH lives in Costa Mesa.

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