The Our Children Matter campaign, sponsored by the Mesa United Way and the Tribune, is a two-month drive to help raise funds for children in need in the East Valley, including those who live in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek. While in the past the focus has been on fun activities, the difficult economy switched the campaign's goals to basic needs of children: food, shelter and clothing. The goal is to raise $15,000 by July 31.
The average outfit for a child at Wal-Mart costs around $27.
Shirt and shorts, $5 each. Sneakers or sandals, around $11. A pack of underwear, $6.
But if you're a foster care child in Arizona, your monthly clothing allowance is less than half of what it would cost to buy one outfit at the discount retailer - and at a time in your life when you're outgrowing clothes quickly.
An increase in children needing foster care over the past years and the current economic downturn have prompted major budget cuts to foster care, including a cut to only $12 a month for clothing.
"It's what the state feels it can do at this time," said Carol McCormack, president of Mesa United Way. "They really depend on the community to pitch in."
McCormack said foster care cuts are part of the reason for the "basic needs" focus of this year's Our Children Matter campaign.
The campaign, sponsored by the Mesa United Way and the Tribune, is a two-month drive to help raise funds for children in need in the East Valley, including those who live in Mesa, Gilbert, Chandler and Queen Creek. While in the past the focus has been on fun activities, the difficult economy switched the campaign's goals to basic needs of children: food, shelter and clothing. The goal is to raise $15,000 by July 31.
"The average person out there assumes that the state pays all the needs for those children in state care," McCormack said. "The state just simply doesn't have the money."
Dan Wollam, vice president for community solutions at Mesa United Way, was a foster parent for 20 years, taking in 13 foster children during that time. He believes that clothing is very essential to the development of a child.
"Foster children feel like they have a big sign on their heads," Wollam said. "It's made even more difficult if their clothing isn't adequate."
He believes that clothing and other personal items are especially important for children in the pre-teen and teenage years who tend to have more difficulty in the foster care system.
"Being respected amongst their peers is very critical to a foster child who feels that their life is being looked at strangely," Wollam said. "They want to blend in, and that costs money."
Wollam said that the $12 a month is extremely insufficient for clothing needs, especially with prices on clothing being higher than in the past.
"If you look at what's being allocated," Wollam said, "how many months do you have to save up to get a pair of shoes?"
There are currently no clothing banks in the East Valley for foster children. The nearest bank for Child Protective Services is in the West Valley. McCormack said that the Mesa United Way is planning on opening a clothing bank in Mesa sometime in July that would be open to group homes and foster families. Those plans are still a work in progress.
Wollam hopes foster children might be able to get some new clothes as well as donated clothing.
"A foster child should be able to get something new, too," Wollam said. "Kids of any age, regardless of circumstances, have feelings, dignity, and self-worth."
The number of children in state custody has increased tremendously since 2003, McCormack said, due to laws that allow Child Protective Services to take children from homes where drugs are an apparent issue. This contributed to an increase in the number of children in foster care from 7,000 in 2003 to around 11,000 currently. This increase has put a strain on funding.
McCormack said that while recent budget cuts have hurt foster care, the money flow has never really been good for children.
"Reimbursements have never been what it costs to take care of a child," McCormack said.
Still, she believes that even with limited funding from the state, it isn't state leaders who should be blamed.
"We're not pointing the finger at legislation," McCormack said. "This is something that belongs to all of us."
Wollam said that while he is no longer a foster parent, he feels extraordinary respect for those who are.
"My heart is still with foster families out there who are able to open their homes and open their hearts for a child who needs to be cared for and needs to be encouraged," Wollam said.