With their wide-eyed innocence, children embody the hopes of their parents and communities for a better future. But when kids aren’t given the support they need, the impact can be lifelong. That’s exactly why St. Louis has so many children’s charities working to provide a safety net for every child in need.
Joanie Protzel, executive director of Carney’s Kids, first met radio talk show host John Carney of KMOX at a Make-A-Wish Foundation gala he was emceeing. “We sat next to each other,” Protzel recalls. “The following year I chaired the gala and asked him if he would like to emcee again. Later he asked me to help him with a fund-raiser, he was doing so much charity work in the community that he decided he needed his own foundation.”
Protzel is now organizing the ninth Carney’s Kids fund-raiser. “We’re out there raising as much money as we can,” she says. Carney’s Kids supports multiple organizations, including the Litzinger Special School, Saint Louis Crisis Nursery, and Half the Sky Foundation, a Chinese group that enriches the lives of children waiting to be adopted. “We like to give at least $10,000 to each charity,” says Protzel. But when other charities call asking for support during the year, Carney’s Kids usually steps up to the plate.
“John works harder than anybody with his foundation,” Protzel says. “Most celebs just put their name behind their foundation, but he puts time and effort into working with us. That’s so important.” The next fund-raiser is slated for Halloween, with special guest celebrities Randy and Jason Sklar, Eddie Brill from the Late Show with David Letterman, and Dale Jones, who was a semi-finalist on Last Comic Standing. For more information, visit www.carneyskids.org.
Foster kids compose another group in need of extra attention. Nationwide, more than half a million children live under foster care. In Missouri, that number is more than 10,000, and in St. Louis County, more than 1,000. But there is virtually no support from the state for charities servicing foster children. “Missouri is almost the very last state in the union for foster care support,” says Bess Wilfong, director of Angels’ Arms, an organization that provides homes for foster children and much-needed resources, everything from clothing and meals to music lessons.
Angels’ Arms helps ease the burden for foster parents by providing living space for foster families. “We purchase a home, and the foster parents live in the home and are able to care for the children who come into the state’s care,” Wilfong explains. “That way they can focus on the children’s needs and not on house maintenance. Being a foster parent is challenging. We take up to six foster children in each home.” Missouri’s monthly foster care rate averages only between $271 and $358, which is meant to cover all the needs of one child.
With four homes in its possession, Angels’ Arms has served more than 125 children since buying its first house in 2003. “The neat thing about it is, the community really embraces the family and is able to meet the many needs these kids have,” says Wilfong, a foster parent herself. “They do everything from helping tutor to getting them into Scouts or taking them to Cards games, a lot of opportunities they’ve never experienced. We never give them money, but we give them opportunities, like going to camp for free or finding someone willing to teach piano to the kids for free.”
It’s hard to imagine children not having something as basic as shoes, but one local woman discovered that was, indeed, the case for many youngsters. Elinor Nelson chaperoned one weekend at a free camp for low-income families. She noticed that most of the children lacked proper shoes for camping and even for walking back and forth to the pool. “It was just so sad to me,” Nelson remembers. “I believe I was placed there for a reason. I had been afraid to go out and initiate it, but after that weekend at camp, it was an inspiration for me to start a charity and help kids have at least one good pair of shoes.”
The nonprofit, 2,000 Feet, has been serving the community for the last eight years, buying shoes for children in need of them with the goal of reaching 1,000 children per year. “Most are from families where the mother may be incarcerated or the family is experiencing extreme financial hardship,” says Nelson. “We collaborate with school counselors or social workers who call to ask for help. Children will come to school in the snow with canvas tennis shoes on, feet freezing wet, with no socks. And they have nothing to give the child. Some kids won’t even go to school, especially at the start of the school year. Many will miss even the first month because they don’t have shoes or school supplies.” Rather than giving out hand-me-downs, 2,000 Feet takes children shopping for shoes so each child gets to pick the pair of his or her choice. It has teamed with Harmony Health Plan to help one of the poorest areas in East St. Louis, providing 200 kids with shoes and school supplies.
“I got a letter today I haven’t yet read, I get several letters from parents and children thanking us for how much 2,000 Feet has meant to their family,” says Nelson. “So many of the kids are being raised by grandparents because the mother may be incarcerated or an addict, and the father is not in the picture. We had a grandmother in her 80s raising four young boys. These are the kind of things that touch your heart. You want to do all you can to help.”