On Sunday, September 21, 2014 more than 200 foster children celebrated local nonprofit founder Danny Mendoza’s 26th birthday by traveling to Disneyland. Danny Mendoza established charity, TOGETHER WE RISE, a leader in foster care innovation, at the age of 19.
This is the second year in a row TOGETHER WE RISE celebrated by inviting children, from several different foster agencies across Southern California, to spend the day at Disneyland. For many, this trip was their first time visiting “the happiest place on earth.” Founder Danny Mendoza explained, “Most of these children don’t get to experience simple childhood events that every child should. I believe Disneyland is something they will never forget and hopefully instill in them that someone cares about them.”
The event invited over 200 children, involved 120 volunteers, and took 350-boxed lunches, 75 pizzas, 250 cupcakes and over 400 bottles of water and lemonade. A special moment was shared when the 200 children gathered around Danny to sing him ‘Happy Birthday’ as one of the kids even stuffed a cupcake into Danny’s face. Each child also received $20 to purchase food or souvenirs but most of the chaperones couldn’t resist buying more for the children in their group.
The volunteers for the event were in charge of 10 children for the day. Each group had a team name, some of them included, ‘Team Simba’, ‘Team Geenie’, and ‘Team Frozen’. There was a married couple that volunteered who are currently in the process of becoming foster parents. In their team, they had a siblings group of 5 children. The couple had such an overwhelming experience they emailed Danny a few days later wanting to adopt all 5!
Many of the volunteers expressed their experience as powerful but devastating at the same time. “Many of these kids get a bad reputation for being ‘foster kids’ but you spend 10 –minutes with them and realize they just want someone to be their friend” said one of the volunteers. A lot of people don’t consider adoption from the foster care system because they believe them to be problem children or have ‘issues’ but in reality these children just express what they feel. They are all going through a turbulent and confusing time so their emotions are going to reflect that.
TOGETHER WE RISE also used this event as an opportunity to reunite siblings who have been separated after entering the foster care system. After witnessing three sisters singing together, a volunteer asked the girls if they sang together often. One of the girls replied, “we used to, but not since my sister got placed in a separate home. We don’t like to sing without her.” The volunteer explained, “It broke my heart, but it also made me happy that they had this opportunity to sing together again. I want to thank [TOGETHER WE RISE] for organizing events that will create such beautiful memories for these kids and [for] allowing others, such as myself, to witness their joy.”
Together We Rise’s Disney event is a great opportunity not only for the children but also for the volunteers who build relationships with the kids. “We had multiple volunteers who cried after the event because they realize the harsh reality for these children and once they leave they may not see their sibling or parents again” stated a TWR intern supervising the event. This event may not correct major issues in the system but it creates an allows the children to experience a day they will never forget.