The calendar says Christmas falls on Dec. 25, but for more than 200 foster children and parents served by Youth Advocate Services, Christmas came early.
The foster-care agency held its 10th annual Snowflake Festival on Dec. 11 at a new location, Victorious Living Church, 2996 Columbus St. in Grove City.
"The Snowflake Festival is a celebration of the season and it's a celebration of foster parents and a 'thank you' for the love and care they provide the children who stay with them," said Anita Godfrey, director of foster care for Youth Advocate Services.
"It's also a celebration of the foster children themselves, to show them our love and care for them and that we value them," said Arnetta Davis, the group's licensing coordinator who oversees the event's organization.
"We want this to be a night where they can feel like a child," said Sarah Cochey, the organization's CEO.
"The holidays can be a hard time for a child who has been taken away from their natural families, whether it's because of abuse, an illness in the family or some other type of crisis," she said.
At the Snowflake Festival, the foster children and their families participate in games and activities, have dinner and treats, meet with Santa and have photographs taken and receive a gift, Davis said.
"We also invite the foster parents' natural children to the party, and they also receive a gift," she said. "It's a night they all can share together."
The gifts requested by the foster children were written on snowflakes that decorated trees set up ahead of the festival at the Grandview and Columbus West locations of Pathways Financial Credit Union, Davis said.
"People could stop by one of the locations, pick one of the snowflakes and purchase the gift a youngster requested," she said.
The event also serves as a holiday gift for Youth Advocate Services' staff and volunteers, Davis said.
"It's so heartwarming to see the smiles on the children's faces and on the faces of their foster families," she said. "You can't help but smile yourself."
Youth Advocate Services is a nationally accredited, state-certified nonprofit child- and family-care agency that was established in 1978. Its offices are at 825 Grandview Ave. in Columbus.
The agency finds foster homes for children from infancy to age 18 and provides foster families with behavioral health, early childhood, adoption support and community-respite services, Cochey said.
"Our mission is to find safe, loving and caring places for children in need of a placement away from their natural families," she said.
"We're available to foster families at any time they need assistance," Cochey said. "We're not just a 9-to-5 agency. We're here to support them throughout the foster-care process, up to and including adoption."
The agency has held its festival at various locations through the last decade, but this was the first event at Victorious Living.
"We feel a calling to help the widows and orphans not only internationally in the Philippines and Romania and other countries but also at a local level, and that has led to our partnership with Youth Advocate Services," said Brent Powell, Victorious Living's executive pastor.
Hosting the event and supporting the agency "is a great opportunity for us to give back and help in what we feel like is an epidemic in our country, the foster system and children who are in the care of foster families," he said.
Earlier this year, Victorious Living initiated a Journey Bag project, which helps distribute items including age-appropriate clothing, underwear, socks, travel kits, books, toys and games for youngsters transitioning to a foster home, Powell said.
More than 100 bags were assembled and sent to foster-care agencies in central Ohio to provide to children, he said.
The idea of partnering with Youth Advocate Services came from church member Christina Queen. Queen and her husband, Burl, have housed 30 foster children over the past 15 years from the agency, and have adopted eight of the children.
"To us, it's just a way to live out what our faith teaches us," Christina Queen said. "We feel like we're the ones who are the real beneficiaries of all this. Once you get started and see the need these children have and the impact your love and caring can have on their lives, it makes you want to do more."
The Queens had already adopted four foster children when one of their two natural children, Meshach, 17, died Feb. 9, 2011, after he was struck by an SUV while skateboarding on West Broad Street.
"We thought we were finished with adopting, but it was our four adopted foster children who encouraged us to do more," Queen said.
The love and affection their adopted children have brought into their home helped ease the pain a bit of losing Meshach, she said.
The Queen family now includes the couple's natural daughter, Timberly, 24; three sets of siblings: Sean, 16, and Ezekiel, 15; Chayah, 15, and Gianna, 14; and Jaden, 11, and Trinity, 8; and MacKenzie, 6, and Sebastian, 2.
Three other boys, ages 3, 2 and 3 months, are living with the Queens.
"We're going through the process hoping to adopt them as part of our family," Queen said.
The Queens and their children attended the Snowflake Festival, with the teenagers among the church members serving as volunteers to help run the event.
Last year, the Queens moved from the Grove City area to Circleville, where they built a house to accommodate their growing family.
"There is such a need for foster families to take care of children who need a safe place to live," Queen said. "Maybe by hosting this event, more people in our church will learn about YAS and offer their love and help."
More information about the agency, its programs and how to become a foster parent is available at yasohio.org, Cochey said.