Malheur County foster kids get an early Christmas with Santa, gifts

By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – The toddler ignored the bins of toys on the floor before him and instead stared up at the mounted elk head.

Nearby, a woman bent towards a young boy seated, waiting for dinner.

“What are you going to ask Santa for?” she asked.

The boy leaned back in his metal chair, folding his arms across his chest.

“I’m going to think about it,” he said.

He didn’t have long to think before Santa arrived at the Ontario Elks Lodge to grab his attention and that of the toddler more interested in hunting trophies than Christmas gifts.

The two were among foster children from across Malheur County treated Sunday evening to a holiday festival meant to bring brightness to their sometimes challenged lives. They came with foster parents and the parents’ children, blended families behaving as one.

The Foster and Adoptive Parents Association put on the event, with planning that began in August. The Elks served up a holiday meal of turkey, stuffing, and all the trimmings. The lady serving cranberries joshed with youngsters who turned up their nose at her offering.

“More for me!” she said without the slightest hint of criticism or cajoling.

Moving along the rows of tables and kids and parents, Joni Delgado searched for those who had attended last summer’s Camp Elderberry. She had her own gift – a DVD with photos of their time at camp.

One corner of the lodge dining room looked like an outlet store for a woodworker. Sam Warren of Payette spent weeks crafting one after another small wooden chairs, some with football-shaped backs, others with heart-shaped ones. He had wooden toolboxes with wooden tools. He had wooden carriers holding crayons.

They were all neatly stacked. He had donated it all. Kids grew wide eyed when told they could have what they wanted.

Warren said he has been donating the wooden goodies for four years or so.

“I love kids,” said the retired highway worker.

Janielle Bennett of Vale, president of the foster parent association, tried to get the attention of the exuberant crowd. Over the din of conversation and laughter, Bennett thanked those who helped orchestrate the event, which started out as a modest gathering in a state office lobby 11 years ago. She saved her warmest thanks for the busiest people in the room.

“Thank you, each and every one of you foster parents,” Bennett said.

The giving didn’t start until Santa arrived, as members of the Vale High School girls basketball team led the crowd in “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Santa no sooner sat down on his throne then a young girl raced from the dining tables to crawl into his lap, sharing her secret wishes for Christmas.

A line quickly formed and the party really got going. Kids talked to Santa and then, with a basketball player serving as Santa’s helper, they pawed through piles of donated goods. The bulk were given by employees at Snake River Correctional Institution.

A girl, maybe 4, clutched a pink Barbie doll. A boy about 6 strode without indecision to the stack of soccer balls, plucking one and holding it to his chest. Another girl, in a dress and black party shoes, seemed awed that she could keep the game she found in one bin.