There are very few holidays simultaneously as warm and cold as Christmas. If the multitudes of Christmas specials that pockmark the screen are any indication, this time of year is about families engaging in the little traditions like opening that one present on Christmas Eve or holding a holiday dance party. They end up forging memories that remain lodged in the mind to reappear 10 or 15 or 20 or more years down the line.
But it’s a dark season as well, one in which all of the joy felt in Whoville only add to the pangs of loneliness that come from a holiday with no presents or tree or food or even anyone to share it all with. Christmas is a day filled with things — love, food, gifts, warmth, cheer, goodwill, kindness — which makes a day of probable emptiness even more difficult to handle.
Hope falls on the side of the former being the norm for children who observe Christmas, and either continuing or creating a sense of normalcy during the season and beyond is one of the objectives for the staff of Sunshine Acres.
Housed in Mesa, Sunshine Acres was founded in 1954 by the Rev. James Dingman and his wife, Vera, who spent the prior 14 years turning the reverend’s prayers of opening a place to help children during an awful time in their life into a place. The place has remained in the family since: President and CEO Carol Whitworth is the Dingmans’ daughter, and Executive Director Kevin Humphrey is the Dingmans’ great-grandson.
Now just shy of 60 years on, approximately 1,678 children from across the Valley — including about 80 who reside there now — have called Sunshine Acres home for at least a short while.
There’s really no defined time for how long a child is there, as Humphrey said Sunshine Acres will take kids usually between the ages of 5 and 15 in for a few months or for several years and even beyond graduation from high school through a transitional program.
It’s a home that fosters children, but it’s not technically a foster home, as Sunshine Acres does not receive funding from the state or Child Protective Services, nor does it accept children through government agencies.
“Everything is done through the parents or the grandparents,” he said.
The statement came during an early December tour of Sunshine Acres. It took place through the remnants of a recent wave of rain that muddied the ground and exacerbated an Arizona cold day, requiring the use of a truck to tour around the acreage instead of the usual golf cart.
Currently, Sunshine Acres has seven houses to host the children, with an eighth on the way — it should be ready by the spring — courtesy of Blandford Homes. Each house hosts a set number of children who either bunk with a roommate or get a room of their own, although exceptions to that arrangement do arise with certain family situations.
Guiding the kids in the homes are house parents who volunteer their time to care for the children. Some volunteer as a means of completing their missionary work, while others do it for the sake of doing it. Either way, they tend to remain in their homes for approximately three years, though Humphrey said some have remained for upwards of 20.
“It’s a lifetime commitment for some of these parents,” he said.
Those who have remained for 20 or so years have witnessed a few marked changes to Sunshine Acres. More buildings have arisen to expand the number of children served, while others have been knocked down to accomplish the same goal. Years of building and tearing down have knocked the number of buildings remaining from the 1960s down to three.
It does take some of the touches of history out of the place, but the new buildings provide a far better home experience for the kids. Take the newest place, with a wonderfully impressive kitchen where Jhonta Brown and Whyatt Martinez coordinated with house parent Nichole Tittle to make no-bake cookies. Tittle took care of the cooking and blended the oatmeal, chocolate and peanut butter together, while Brown and Martinez shaped them into massive gobs of goo-ish sugar and waited for them to cool. They ended up being pretty tasty.
Also inside the house were computers, televisions, furniture — among them a $30,000 Gucci couch — and just about everything else donated from the community at large. Even tools used to operate some of the devices like Apple TV — in this case to order films online — came courtesy of a sizable iTunes gift card.
All of that is pretty common for Sunshine: even the buildings like the incoming Blandford home and a barn Academy Award-winner Ben Johnson paid $100,000 to build were donated.
“There really are no costs,” Humphrey said.
Those free items extend to the presents the kids will receive on Christmas as well, with a slew of presents waiting for the kids under the tree.
The tour coincided with the first stages of Christmas decorations at the various homes inside Sunshine, with a few fake but still well-decorated trees dressed to the nines for the season. The ensuing weeks include the incorporation of a few fresh trees, as well as a potential visit from Arizona Cardinals’ legend Kurt Warner, who has been a proponent of Sunshine Acres for years.
Pretty elaborate, but it goes back to the idea of forging that normalcy for the kids, and loads upon loads of presents, family visits and special guests do much to remove the emptiness from the holiday.
“Christmas time is special around Sunshine,” he said.
The leftover rain and cloud coverage dissipated during the tour of the chapel — another remnant of the old days — where the nondenominational services are on Sundays. The kids even participate first hand by performing in a band to back the sermons.
Enter the symbolism about Sunshine Acres that stems from where the money comes from. There’s a boutique that has grown from an $80,000-a-year operation to just shy of a $1 million, but that only covers about a third of the yearly operating expenses.
The rest, well, just happens to come by the grace of something or other, a form of faith-based fiscal planning Humphrey said the place is based on.
“Things just seem to work out; I have no idea where the money will come from in the beginning of the year,” he said.
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