This year has been hard, but having the chance to reflect on the stories this last year have been so good for my soul. One of my favorite stories of this year has actually been unfolding at Ohana for many years. It is the story of Gio, one of our Ohana youth. He is now 18 years old. He came to Ohana 4 years ago after being dropped off at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital and was never picked up. Gio has special needs and has been in foster care for most his life. When he first came to Ohana he was so scared and angry. I remember one of the early days several years ago, chasing him through the park and blocking rocks from being thrown at my truck because he didn’t know how to express his sadness. He missed the life that was taken from him at such a young age. No one should have to endure this amount of pain.
In 2018, I remember sitting with him at Sea World as we watched the dolphin show together. He turned to me and said this was his first vacation. His shy, half smile is forever part of my soul. I was watching him experience family again.
In May 2020, Gio graduated high school! He had the loudest cheering section at his graduation full of his Ohana family. It was a milestone we weren’t sure would happen. But he did it! We hosted his graduation party full of cat themed décor (Gio’s choice!). He convinced me to buy him a puppy for graduation…and I did. Why do I do this? A word of caution…don’t buy a teenager a dog he has to train (total disaster!)…I should have just bought him another cat.
As he neared graduation, we talked about his future, his house manager encouraged him (more like a full court press) to get his first job. He enrolled in a jobs training program and excelled. Just a few months ago, he completed the work program and he is now an official employee at the Walgreens down the street! He walks to work every day on his own, he is learning independence, and becoming quite a responsible young man.
This Thanksgiving another breakthrough happened for Gio at our Annual Turkey Bowl. Because of Gio’s special needs, physical affection is not his thing. However, without prompting he walked up to me and gave me a hug and said Happy Thanksgiving. I have been giving Gio hugs with his hands held glued to his sides for the last 4 years. But this year, with Gio’s arms wrapped around my shoulders I received the best hug I could have asked for all year long. A kid who hates physical affection felt safe and can hug his Ohana family. I am watching healing happening in real time.
Lastly, the most significant moment that is forever part of me happened earlier this year. The Ohana leadership team hosted a prayer dedication for a new Ohana house and Gio showed up unexpectedly. He walked around the each room inspecting the quality and then asked if he could lead the prayer. It was beautiful. Gio prayed for the kids who will be moving into this home to experience the love, family, and friendship he has experienced all these years. There were tears welling up in my eyes as I listened to Gio’s prayer. It was a holy moment. Gio’s heart was full of love. Gio has experienced a deep sense of hope and healing, and now he is extending that same love he received to kids coming after him.
This is why we exist. Even in the most weariest of days (and years…2020 and 2021…please end) this is why the work we do matters. This year has been the hardest year in many respects. But Gio reminds me of why this all matters. His progress is undeniable. His love for God is real and true.
If you read our story in August about Devin, we were highlighting his hard work to prepare for the CPAT (Candidate Physical Ability Test). The test would qualify him to interview to join a Fire Cadet program. It's his dream to become a firefighter, and nothing would stop him. After finally taking the test later in August, Devin failed and was very defeated. His group home manager and staff worked together to encourage him. Devin did not want to give up yet, and told his group home manager he still wanted to pursue his dream, so his manager called several fire departments. After the phone calls it was clear that Devin had to go to a doctor to be cleared due to his high blood pressure and overall health. The doctor check up, lit a fire in Devin and he began dieting and working out consistently for weeks. Fire Station 152 gave Devin a second chance last week to take the CPAT. Devon PASSED!!!! After a post-interview, they told him he is now qualified for the Fire Cadet program.
Devin gave us a speech after his great accomplishment. "The firefighter gear is very heavy but I can handle it; it all weighs around 50 pounds. I wanna risk my life to save a life. I worked hard for this; not a lot of people with disabilities get this opportunity. I never want to let a disability hold me back.”
Devin has been an inspiration of hard work and resilience to us all over at Ohana. Stay tuned for more stories as he continues to pursue his dream.
Marlin is a dear friend at Ohana, being in our care for 2½ years. Within that time, we've had the privilege of watching him grow in so many ways. He is very well-known in our Ohana community because of his infectious, joyful spirit that he carries with him everywhere he goes. For the past year, Marlin has been getting up at 5 am Monday through Friday to work at Robinson Ranch. At the ranch, Marlin feeds the horses, cleans up the stalls, and leads volunteers when they come visit the ranch. Tuesday through Thursday, Marlin goes to a day program where he helps prepare food to feed and serve underprivileged communities. One of our main pillars at Ohana is Creating Normalcy, and Marlin is an incredible example of independence and by being so involved in the community.
This year we had our 5th Annual Turkey Bowl, and it was stuffed with tons of fun! Every year we do our best to improve our agency, and especially how we serve our members. We had inflatables, a bounce house, 9 Square in the Air and lots of fun crafts and games. While serving both our special needs adults and foster care youth, we like to be inclusive. We had a few giveaways and raffles, and one of our special needs adults, Devin, had his eye on a giant plush animal. He wanted it soo bad that he wouldn’t stop asking his staff about it! His staff told him he should pray for it—an inside encouragement that they give. As they started to announce these winners, Devin’s name was called! He was shouting and telling his staff that “God does answer prayers!" We love any hope we can give at Ohana, and that day Devin left with more hope. We also had a guest appearance from The Grinch and his dog Max!
What a beautiful morning serving with your community partner, Christ's Church of the Valley. We had over 100 volunteers show up and show out. A lot of big projects got accomplished thanks to the selfless hard work. We appreciate all the help we can get serving all of our special needs adults and foster youth. The impact is immeasureable!
Over at Ohana we have three main pillars we like to focus on with our youth. One of those pillars is Faith Development in Community. This Saturday morning three of our foster youth homes participated in a painting project with an elderly community. It’s a beautiful picture to see our youth that struggle with purpose and self worth to be able to give back to the community. The elderly owner of the home was filled with joy as our youth helped paint their home. And to be honest, their painting skills weren’t half bad…they may be ready for hire soon!
Meet Christian, one of our foster youth. In July his doctor recommended Christian be more active and eat healthier. Although it is tough for him to break his old habits and keep the weight off, his persistence is paying off and he’s already down 15 pounds and counting! He’s been an inspiration to the staff and his house! Way to go, Christian!
Meet Devin. One of Devin’s dreams is to be a firefighter. The Ohana staff has encouraged Devin to make fitness a priority, and he has taken on the challenge by exercising multiple times a day. We are all extremely proud of Devin’s initiative and know he has an incredible future ahead of him!
Meet Cristina. She has come such a long way since moving to Ohana. Our Direct Care Worker Natalie has worked with her to improve her mobility and now is improving her health with exercises every day. One of Cristina’s favorite things to do is play Sorry! She also continues to amaze the staff with her abilities, growing her vocabulary and even learning sign language. Everyone loves making memories with Cristina!
This summer, Ohana Athletics conducted a basketball clinic for kids in 1st - 8th grade. Every Saturday morning, boys and girls learned the fundamentals of basketball while staying active and having fun. It was particularly great seeing several of our special needs Ohana kids displaying their skills.