Lending a helping hand

Organization helps adoptive families in financial need

One of the common misconceptions about adopting or fostering one of the thousands of children looking for a home across the state is that all they need is a home.

Many tend to forget about the fact that most of these children come into their perspective permanent or temporary homes with little to their name.

Children might not have ample clothing, toys, school supplies or even diapers when they arrive to their new homes and one Westport family is looking to change all that.

Meet Debb and Mario Leone: a couple with three foster children, who have created Tiny Hands Helping Hands, a 501(c)3 organization geared toward helping other foster families who are trying to make ends meet.

As the couple stated on their Web site, www.tinyhandshelpinghands.com, at about 5 p.m. a few months ago they received a call from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) asking if they wanted to take in two young children for an "emergency situation." Without even batting an eyelash the couple immediately said yes. Then reality set in.

"I ran out to the store to get supplies that the kids need," Debb Leone said. "We had some items at the house since we have experience in fostering children in the past but we realized that not every family, including ours, has all the items you need to raise a child on hand. I mean, we didn't even have a crib yet."

When the foster children arrived to their new homes, she said, DCF in most cases supplies some clothing and diapers, but not always. Although DCF does provide most families with a monthly stipend to purchase these items that doesn't always cover the cost of a growing child.

And that is where Tiny Hands Helping Hands comes into play. The Leones have created a donation network for other adoptive/fostering families which accepts anything a child needs from diapers, clothing and sneakers to toys, toiletry items and even prom dresses.

"We are here to help and support foster and adoptive families so when they get the call from DCF, then they can call us and we can help make that transition so much easier," Leone said.

The donation network, which is only open to foster and adoptive families in Connecticut, accepts all the items the DCF voucher can't support, especially as the children get older. One of the hardest parts about being a parent, Leone said, is that buying clothing for growing kids can be a constant battle, this month's winter coat might not fit the child by January and not every family can afford to purchase new clothes every few months.

Besides the two toddlers they foster, the Leones also have a 17-year-old daughter who is in the "pre-adoptive stage." And just like any teenage girl, their daughter has an eye for fashion.

"You know how it is, she wants the brand-name clothes, she doesn't want to go to school in the K-mart special," Leone said.

Obviously the DCF vouchers do not cover these types of purchases but according to Leone, it's an important part of the adoptive transition.

"The state helps you out with a stipend that is designed for [the child's] care but the money can't always cover necessities like toys, cribs, high chairs and clothes," Leone said. "It's our goal to make not only our children but every adopted and foster children feel like they are home," she said.

Not only is Tiny Hands Helping Hands trying to make a difference in the lives of foster children, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell has announced that this month is Adoption Awareness Month.

A press release from Rell's office stated that Rell "has long made adoption one of her top priorities and has led efforts to improve the state's support for adoptions."

The release states that in 2005, Rell established a program to help fund college education for children who are adopted from foster care. She also set up a program to assist families in getting counseling.

"These and other efforts have had an impact, and last month the federal government announced a $511,354 grant to Connecticut for improving the number of foster care adoptions," the release said.

While the state is focusing on secondary education for adoptive kids, the Leones are just trying to make every day an easy and loving transition for foster children across the state. What Tiny Hands Helping Hands is looking for, according to Leone, is anything from "crayons to furniture."

Part of their goal is to get the community involved and educated on all the items a foster family needs, even things you might not think about. As an example, Leone's daughter is a junior at an area high school and just like any teenage girl she can't wait to go to the prom and as Leone points out the high school dream of going to your prom can become pretty costly, it's not just the dress, but tickets, corsages, transportation etc. "These are things DCF doesn't pay for and we want her and every foster child to have this great experience," she says.

But Tiny Hands Helping Hands isn't just about the luxury of the prom, Leone said, it's also about simple everyday items that children need. "We are hoping to get anything and everything from extra bed sheets and blankets, to book bags and school supplies. I think this is a great thing to have especially when there are so many children out there who need a helping hand."

Tiny Hands Helping Hands has set up a donation drop off point at Townhouse for Dogs and Cats, 1040 Post Road E., Westport, and anyone seeking to donate monetary funds to the organization are more than welcome to do so. For more information please visit www.tinyhandshelpinghands.com, or contact Leone at Debbie@tinyhandshelpinghands.com.

Also, anyone interested in learning more about becoming a foster or adoptive parent should call (888) KID-HERO.