Last June 5, 17-year-old Mesa High School student JaKelle Michelle Westergard lost a three-month battle with a baffling lung ailment.
Her tragic passing devastated her family and friends, who remembered the vivacious and caring girl as someone who loved dance, chocolate, cheerleading, steak, swimming, her family, her church and making new friends.
Lynn and Jana Westergard say their daughter also loved Christmas, and they and their family want her giving spirit to live on through JaKelle's Christmas Box, a project they've launched in conjunction with Helen's Hope Chest, Mesa United Way's free clothing, school supply and gift bank for foster children.
The Westergards have invited the entire community to donate new toys, games and gift cards so that the more than 1,600 foster children regularly served by Helen's Hope Chest will get something extra from Santa this year. Lynn Westergard, a longtime Mesa United Way board member, noted that many foster families struggle to provide clothing and school supplies — not to mention gifts on special occasions — for their charges since the state cut the monthly expense allowance to $12.50 per child several years ago.
"JaKelle loved Christmas," Westergard said. "The lights, sounds and smells of Christmas always made her happy. She loved to go on car rides to look at Christmas lights around the neighborhoods. She also loved to give and receive gifts – and we as her parents as well as her brothers loved to give her gifts, and lots of them!
"Over the last number of weeks as we have thought about this first Christmas without JaKelle, we quickly realized that we wanted to continue to 'shower' JaKelle with lots of gifts. We came up with the idea of JaKelle’s Christmas Box. We decided that we will continue to buy lots and lots of gifts for JaKelle and put them in this special Christmas Box. We hope to fill many big boxes by inviting all of our extended family members, friends and everyone in the community to join us."
Westergard said the family chose Helen's Hope Chest to distribute the gifts because it has done so much to improve the lives of thousands of foster children since it opened nearly three years ago.
Helen's Hope Chest Manager Emily Strunk said she is thrilled with the project as a way to further brighten the lives of area foster children and to keep JaKelle's giving spirit alive throughout the community. "The children's faces light up when they go 'shopping' at Helen's, and their foster parents are grateful for the help they get making sure these kids have nice clothes, books, school supplies and gifts during the holidays," Strunk said.
Donations of new toys, games, stuffed animals and gift cards for children of all ages can be dropped off by Dec. 12 at Helen's Hope Chest, 546 N. Stapley Drive in Mesa, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and Saturday; and at Mesa United Way, 137 E. University Drive, Mesa, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Items should not be gift wrapped.
• Bob Schuster is a retired Arizona journalist and volunteer publicist for Mesa United Way.