Grant money enables Wyoming foster kids to shop with a hero

Kathryn Palmer Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
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U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Ela shows a Hot Wheels monster truck to a foster child, whose identity was not publicly released because he was a juvenile in the foster care system, during a Shop with a Hero event in Cheyenne, Wyo., on Dec. 12, 2020. AP PHOTO

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The toy section in a Walmart store was buzzing with excitement as some of Cheyenne’s most trusted adults took local foster children shopping for holiday gifts.

“It just feels good to give back and to see their smiles as I help them Christmas shop,” said Airman 1st Class D’sarae Escalante from F.E. Warren Air Force Base, who spent 10 years of her own childhood in foster care. ”This is my first time doing this, and I’m really enjoying it,” she said before she and one of the children took off to browse for toys Dec. 12.

Escalante was one of about 200 military personnel, firefighters and paramedics who participated in the third annual Shop with a Hero event. The Wyoming Department of Family Services and Friends of Foster Families Inc. used a collective $6,000 in grants to partner with Walmart for the event this year, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reported.

With that money, the store was able to give 60 foster children each a $100 gift card. When they arrived at the store Saturday morning, each child was paired with one or more community heroes to spend an hour in the store shopping for gifts.

“The program is designed so that the children can purchase a gift for themselves for Christmas,” said Amanda McAlaster, Walmart’s market coordinator for the majority of stores in Wyoming. “It’s actually kinds of hard to get them to do that sometimes. They’ll go shopping and want to buy gifts for their brother, sister, foster parents and whoever else they see on a day-to-day basis, and they forget to get themselves something. We always have to remind them that it’s really about them and to please buy something for themselves first.”

McAlaster launched the Shop with a Hero event at the Dell Range location three years ago, but she’s been involved with the program for much of her 20-year tenure with Walmart.

“Most of these kids have had a difficult home life, so they’re typically a little stand-offish around strangers, adults and people in authority,” she said. “This partners them with an adult figure in the community who’s respected and trustworthy, and they get a good rapport with them.”

Even before she started working at Walmart, McAlaster saw the joy the Shop with a Hero brings to children who come from tough situations. When she was growing up in Springfield, Missouri, her parents fostered several children who often participated in a similar event during the holidays.

“It really wasn’t about the gifts, it was about them going and coming back happy,” McAlaster recalled. “I can’t remember a single gift, but I do remember them leaving scared or sad and coming back happy.”

Although the children who participated in Saturday’s event in Cheyenne are wards of the state and were not legally allowed to speak to the press about their experiences, the excitement on their faces and in their body language was palpable as they gazed at shelves of colorful stuffed animals, electronics and board games, among other potential gift items.

“This is a way for us to show these kids that somebody cares – that someone is willing to come out and do this for them,“ said Staff Sgt. Christopher Ela, who also is stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base.

“From my perspective, it’s a very important thing to have that magical Christmas experience in your life. It’s part of being a kid.”