Grace Fry picked up a toy and looked it over, then put it back and moved on to the next table where she chose another toy.
She then walked over to a display of holiday dresses where she selected a plaid and black velvet dress small enough to fit an 8-month-old girl.
Fry, a guardian who represents foster children in Summit County, took her selections seriously last week at the toy shop where guardians chose toys, pajamas and other items to give to the foster children they’re representing during the holidays. The guardians represent children in court who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.
“They’re very excited,” Fry, who has volunteered as a guardian since 2014, said of the reactions of the children when they get the gifts. “They’re not always expecting it. It’s nice to see them excited and surprised.”
Fry was among about 200 guardians who shopped Tuesday at the toy shop organized annually by the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) board to try to brighten the holidays for children in foster care.
“For some of our kids, this is all they get,” said Beth Cardina, program director of the CASA guardian program. “So, as much as we can instill the holiday spirit, we try.”
CASA will provide gifts to about 500 foster children in Summit County during the holidays this year.
The need has grown in recent years as families are torn apart by the opioid crisis and more children are placed in foster care.
There have been more than 1,000 children a year in foster care because of abuse or neglect since 2013, and CASA has assisted them all. The number jumped from about 850 children in 2012, Cardina said.
This year, CASA's toy shop received $15,000 in support, including about $2,000 from the Millennium Fund for Children.
The program is one of 31 sharing $43,750 in grants this year from the Millennium Fund for Children. Started in 1999 when the Akron Beacon Journal asked donors to give their last hour of pay in the 20th century, the Akron Community Foundation has amassed $1 million in the fund while handing out $757,000 in small grants to local programs.
The Akron Community Foundation has added a new text-to-give option to donate to the Millennium Fund this year. People can text "Millennium" to 41444, and they will receive prompts to make a donation on their phone.
CASA's toy shop last week was set up in the conference room of Summit County Juvenile Court, where instrumental music played and an image of a roaring fire was projected onto the wall. Tables of toys grouped by age and gender were lined up throughout the room, and several volunteers wrapped the guardians’ gifts after they chose the items.
The guardians, many representing multiple children from the same or different families, picked out one toy and a pair of pajamas for children 11 and younger. Kids 12 and older will receive a $25 gift card to Target or Walmart. The guardians also were able to choose holiday dresses, gloves, hats and socks for children who needed them.
Summit County Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio said children who are removed from their homes sometimes leave with only the clothes they are wearing, which makes the items they receive from CASA around the holidays even more special. She said Summit County Children Services provides clothing vouchers, but these are normally put toward basic needs.
Cardina said some kids have carried their belongings to their foster homes in a garbage bag.
“To have something theirs — it’s important,” Cardina said.
The toy shop also provides the opportunity for the CASA board to thank the guardians for their work. The guardians each received an ornament, gift card, thank-you letter and lunch.
Marie Libby of Hudson has been a guardian for 18 years and has lost track of the number of children she’s assisted. She is currently working with four kids from the same family.
As a guardian, Libby said she can point to some major victories, including preventing a girl who has already been immunized from being immunized again.
“I feel strongly that no kid should be caught in the system without CASA,” Libby said. “We are the only ones there focused on the kid.”
Shelia Smith, a guardian since 2012, is currently representing two brothers, ages 1 and 2, who have been placed with a relative. She picked out a toy laptop and an animal activity toy to give to the boys.
“They enjoy anything that makes noise,” she said, laughing.
Smith said the relative caring for the boys is “appreciative of everything” CASA provides.
Smith was so excited to deliver the gifts that she planned to stop at their home right after leaving the toy shop.
“They’re cutie-pies,” she said of the boys.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.