By Jill Harmacinski
---- — In everything from holiday dresses and sweaters to jeans and T-shirts, 137 kids of all ages did the hokey pokey, chicken dance and limbo, laughing and smiling as disc jockey Lisa Berry Driscoll enthusiastically ushered them through each move.
There was also plenty of pizza, chocolate milk, cookies and cake.
Dozens of sacks of holiday gifts were wrapped and ready for Santa to deliver at the annual Santa party for foster kids throughout the Merrimack Valley last week.
The Santa’s Helper program, run by the non-profit Foster Kids of the Merrimack Valley, provides holiday gifts for more than 300 kids, from infants to age 12, living in foster care throughout the region.
“Most of these kids would not get anything at all. It’s very hard for foster families to afford anything,” said Donna Kelleher, a FKMV board member.
The Santa’s Helper program organizes volunteers to buy holiday gifts for each foster child. The volunteers, either a single person or a group, are matched with a foster child’s wish list, which includes winter clothing they need and toys they are hoping to get.
This year, 5-year-old Melvin had his heart set on a red Power Ranger. “I can’t wait,” he said, watching and waiting to see when Santa will come through the door.
The children who attend the party cannot be photographed or publicly identified. The party date and location are also not publicized for the safety and privacy of the foster children, organizers said.
Larry Giordano of Methuen remembers growing up in a foster home and attending Salvation Army Christmas parties each year.
“It was fantastic,” he said, recalling how his foster mother would receive a fruit basket and he always got a nice toy.
“Something I could take home and play with ... And there was pizza, popcorn and cupcakes,” said Giordano, who is president of the board of directors and FKMV founder.
When FKMV was launched seven years ago, the group started hosting the holiday party for local foster kids. The Department of Children and Families, state social workers who work with the children, along with foster parents and their children attend each year. Some kids come dressed in holiday suits and frilly dresses. An entire family of foster children came dressed as elves this year.
“The first year we had 78 kids,” said Giordano, a local karate instructor and former city councilor, state representative and state public safety commissioner. “This year, we’ll take care of more than 300 kids.”
Throughout the year, FKMV provides support for area foster children. Backpacks filled with school supplies were handed out at the start of the school year.
The group has also paid for new glasses, prom dresses, bus passes and more for foster children in need.
A new mentoring program for older foster children also in the works, he said.
Giordano points to his “tremendous” 18-member board and constant help from the community as the keys to success.
For the holiday party, Sal’s donated pizza and students at the Greater Lawrence Technical School made cookies, gingerbread men, cupcakes and cake. There were also donations from Daddy’s Vending, Heavn’ly Donuts, Mann’s Orchard and Subway of Andover.
Students from Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen, Holly Quinn, Abby Coleman, Abbey Myers, Josh Dionne and Carlen Ayala, also came to the party and handed out crayons and gift bags to all of the children.
For more information and how you can help, check out the group’s website at fosterkidsmv.org.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.