Sunshine Acres thankful for its many gifts - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Sunshine Acres thankful for its many gifts

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Posted: Thursday, November 24, 2011 6:00 am

Damien Widick grew up at Mesa's Sunshine Acres Children's Home, living in the home from when he was 11 until he joined the Marine Corp. and left for boot camp at 19.

Children between the ages of five and 15 are often placed at Sunshine Acres after their parents experience homelessness, drug or alcohol abuse, or other circumstance that leaves them unable to provide a suitable home.

Today, Widick works for the University of Phoenix. And funds delivered by the school's parent company, Apollo Group, just before Thanksgiving will help further the mission so more kids can find success like Widick.

Sunshine Acres Children's Home was founded in 1954 by Rev. James and Vera Dingman.

The couple sold their house, store and restaurant in downtown Mesa and fulfilled their dream of opening a children's home, said their daughter Carol Whitworth, now president and CEO of the nonprofit.

"We got to the land and it was just dirt roads out here," Whitworth said. "It was nothing but desert and three shacks."

Whitworth introduced Widick as "one of ours" with an arm around him during a ceremony Tuesday to mark the donation of more than $82,000.

"Apollo Group has been most generous not only in money donated, but in hours of time spent working with the program," said the Rev. Sean Sloan, Sunshine Acres executive director. "Many of their faculty and staff donate their time regularly."

Widick returns at least once a year to see his "house parents," he said. Even though things look a little different from when he was living there, he still sees it as his home, he said.

The 70 kids currently at Sunshine Acres are divided into 10-children homes, each with live-in house parents. House parents are adults who provide the structure and mentorship that many children may not have had before.

"We didn't want our houses to look like barracks," said Sloan. Instead, each bedroom is decorated in a different theme. The living spaces are tidy and feel homey.

The children stay a minimum of a year, and are able to stay as long as they wish, some even staying through college.

Children can learn to ride horses and the campus has its own playground and skate park.

Some children attend school on the Sunshine Acres campus, where they receive of one-on-one instruction to get them up to their grade level before they join a traditional public or charter school.

The nonprofit never solicits money, but it is still run entirely off of private donations. It receives no state or federal money and no child is ever turned away for financial reasons.

"Worry about nothing, but pray about everything," reads a sign in the main office building, a quite attributed to "Aunt" Vera Dingman.

Instead, the home relies on the kindness of their neighbors and grants and donations from around the country.

When Whitworth, known as "Aunt Carol" to the children, first returned to help her family run the home, she was trying to pay the bills. But she found the bank account empty. They were short $2,000.

"I asked my father, ‘How can I pay these bills without any money,'" Whitworth recounts. He told her he would pray, she said with a smile.

The next day, he got a phone call and said a local business man had called and offered a donation of $2,000.

With devotion, the nonprofit operates on the belief that God will provide what they need in one way or another. The non-profit doesn't have any debt and it never buys anything on credit. It has met its operating budget every year, Sloan said.

A few years ago, months before the opening of the newest house for boys, a local family's house caught fire, Whitworth said. Sunshine Acres donated a few of the beds to the family that had been set aside for the new building.

Just weeks before it opened, they were still without replacement beds.

"Then I got a phone call from the Kurt Warner Foundation asking if we needed any last minute things for the house," Whitworth said. "The beds were delivered three days later."

The newest addition to the campus may start construction as soon as July. There are currently five houses for boys, but only two for girls. Lately, Sunshine Acres leaders have ad had to turn away girls, Sloan said.

The new building - for girls only - may make more room for those in need, making the donation Tuesday even more appreciated.

The donation check was also joined by checks from its many business partners, such as Yahoo, Google and AT&T, said Mark Brenner, Apollo Group senior vice president of external affairs.

"Particularly at this time of year, when we all stop and give thanks, we are extremely thankful for Apollo Group's donation and ongoing support, Sloan said.

Sunshine Acres hopes to one day house as many as 250 children, Whitworth said.

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