Story and photos by Ryan Kryska
GCU News Bureau
As John and Ali Rice sat in Grand Canyon University Arena and told the story of how one foster child turned into five, they said something that made a boy in a nearby seat turn his head.
It wasn’t, “Santa left the presents under the tree.” Or, “Look what Mom bought for you.”
It was actually a bit more complicated than that – just one word.
Just about any foster child would have reacted the same exact way. But this week, the GCU community has been able to help take finding a forever home off their mind – if only for a split second.
“They’ve been through a lot more than we’ll probably ever understand,” Josh Rice said.
The Rices were at GCU on Wednesday as part of the Back-to-School Clothing Drive’s New Clothes, New Beginnings event. In the past five years, the drive has brought tens of thousands of children onto campus to send them back to school with dress shirts, pants, shoes, backpacks, learning supplies, books, clean teeth and newfound confidence.
But this year, the drive began its partnership with foster children organizations throughout the state. When the event ends Thursday night, 1,500 foster children will have gone home with packed bags.
Josh Rice says his five will go home feeling an inch closer to normal.
“It helps them feel like one of their peers,” he said. “They’re all going through together.”
The Rices will be adopting one of their current foster children. The other four are siblings. They said they originally brought home just one of the four but quickly learned that being with the lone sibling’s brothers and sisters meant more than just being tucked in bed at night.
So the Rices bought a new house with an extra bedroom. They bought a new car that could seat a family of seven. And they reunited a group of kids who have only truly known one real thing in their young lives – each other.
“At this moment in time, as we sit here in the Arena tonight, there are close to 15,000 children in Arizona’s foster care system,” said Dan Shufelt, President of Arizona Helping Hands, one of the organizations bringing the kids to GCU. “It’s this constant flow of children that we try to make a difference for.”
Shufelt’s organization started partnering years ago with the Arizona Friends of Foster Children Foundation, Voices for Casa Children and AASK (Aid to Adoption of Special Kids) to send Arizona’s children back to school with supplies.
But when the opportunity to join the clothing drive’s event came along, it was a no-brainer. The CEO of the event’s title sponsor, Gerald Wissink of the BHHS Legacy Foundation, connected with Shufelt to ask how many foster children could be squeezed in.
“I said, ‘Think you could do 1,500?’” Wissink said. “He said, ‘Jerry, I’ll do it.’”
Wissink then went to the Back-to-School Clothing Drive’s Executive Director, Karl Gentles, and the rest was child’s play.
“When I asked Karl to do it, he didn’t hesitate,” Wissink said. “We’re pleased we are able to provide what they need to be successful in schools. It makes a big difference for these kids.”
Earlier Wednesday, Shufelt was honored for the wave Arizona Helping Hands has made in the state’s foster child community. He received the Arizona Prevent Child Abuse Convention’s Everyday Heroes Award for the services his organization is providing.
“We feel really, really good about changing these kids’ lives,” Shufelt said. “You can see the smiles on the faces out here on all these children as they’re going through this process. You know, getting those hugs from the kids and the gratitude from the parents for helping out them and their journey is just huge. It’s so rewarding.”
And while Shufelt was receiving his award, the new clothes kept fitting and the new beginnings kept beginning. All morning, afternoon and evening, GCU board of directors trustee Dr. Jim Rice and others could be seen unboxing new shoes, volunteering from 7 a.m. to nightfall every day, while College of Education Dean Dr. Kimberly LaPrade kept children engaged, signing books to spread the notion that learning is fun.
“’You know, it’s amazing,” Shufelt said. “I mean, the whole back-to-school experience is a big deal, but it’s a really big deal for a child in foster care.”
Contact Ryan Kryska at (602) 639-8415 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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