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This organization fulfills holiday wish lists for kids in foster care – and keeps sending them gifts when they age out of the system

When you’re a child in foster care, family traditions and gifts for the holidays might be distant dreams. But an organization in south Florida is working to make them a reality. Ahead of the holidays each year, volunteers at Jewish Adoption and Family Care Options work to make the wishes of foster kids come true.

“A lot times at the holidays, children in foster care just get random gifts from very well-intended, generous people in the community, but there’s lots of puzzles and lots of Barbie dolls and that’s not necessarily what they would want in their heart,” JAFCO’s CEO Sarah Franco told CBS News. “And I’m not sure that the children in our care have ever had a wish come true on the holidays, necessarily.”

Each year, JAFCO holds a Hanukkah Gift Drive, where people can buy presents from kids’ wish lists. Then, JAFCO volunteers wrap them. “Since we are a Jewish agency, we say Hanukkah [gift drive], but we really mean ‘holiday’ and we really honor the background of every child we have,” Franco said.

Kids who celebrate Hanukkah will have a gift to open on each of the eight nights of the holiday. And kids who celebrate Christmas will have gifts to open on the 25th.

JAFCO started more than 30 years ago as a foster care organization that focused on matching kids with families that practiced the same faith.

“It’s typically people of faith who bring children into their home,” Franco said. “We felt that if there were enough faith-based groups that were represented in the foster care system that perhaps we could place children in a foster home – when they’ve been abused and neglected and removed – they can be placed in a foster home where they would feel the most comfortable and still get to celebrate the holidays that they’re used to, which is really one of the fondest memories that we all have of our childhood.”

They started recruiting Jewish foster families, but now recruit families of all faiths and backgrounds to help bring representation to kids in foster care.

Franco said JAFCO’s holiday tradition started in her kitchen. She and the COO of JAFCO would wrap gifts themselves and drop them off at foster homes when the kids were asleep.

Now, the holiday gifts they gather go to kids in foster care through JAFCO, those who live in their emergency shelter for families in need, and those who are in their family preservation program, which counsels families through crises.

“We really want to empower the parents who are struggling,” Franco said. “And instead of the gifts coming from us, we will drop off…brand new gifts from the children’s wish list. And inside, we put several rolls of wrap and leave it for mom or dad to wrap.”

She said the emotional reaction from parents is heartwarming. “There’s lots of tears of gratitude,” she said.

And when kids age out of foster care, JAFCO still sends them gifts too. “It does make them feel special, because we don’t know if anyone is sending them anything, even when they’re older, because a lot of children aren’t able to reconcile with their parents even after they’re 18,” she said.

This year, JAFCO is also sending money for Hanukkah to 90 children living in a group home in Israel. “We’re going to send $18 for each child,” she explained. “Eighteen is the number for life – it’s called chai – so it’s a very common amount that people give. It’s a spiritual amount.”

“Hanukkah is a celebration of a miracle that happened,” she said. “We light one candle the first night, and then a second one the second night, we light two, and then three and so on until we get to the eighth night. And the spiritual feeling behind that is it’s a reminder that every day is another opportunity for all of us who are able to bring light into the world and make the world a better place.”

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