By Sara Tiano
Disneyland is a dream destination for pretty much every kid in America. Though it may be hard to imagine improving on the happiest place on Earth, one group is making it even more magical for youth in foster care.
Every autumn, Together We Rise, a nonprofit organization focused on changing the way foster youth experience the system, hosts Disney Days. The event brings together sibling groups who have been separated by the foster care system for an all-expenses-paid blowout day of fun at the theme park.
“We really just try to go all out because we know that these kids have been through so much, and it’s very rare that they get to experience things like going to Disneyland,” said Steven Macias, donor relations manager with Together We Rise and a longtime volunteer at the event. “The fact that we reunite them with their siblings makes it that much better and that much more significant for them.”
When the kids arrive at the park for the big day, they’re assigned to small groups they’ll spend the day with — siblings, of course, are always placed in the same group. Each group is led by a handful of adult volunteers with two social workers or staff members from the participating foster family agencies and group homes, on hand to help diffuse any challenging situations that could arise.
Each group heads off on their own, collectively deciding which rides, parades and shows to hit. Sporadically throughout the day, event volunteers will approach a group with a surprise treat, like churros or candy for everyone.
“My favorite memory was getting candy and being with my sister,” said one participant named Elisa, highlighting the power of these simple gestures.
While excitement runs high — by design — the volunteer group leaders are also careful to make sure the kids don’t get overwhelmed by the whirlwind day.
“We know the neurobiology and psychology behind their little brains, so we stopped a lot for water and snacks,” said Jenelle Cherek, a foster care social worker at the Los Angeles-based foster family agency Olive Crest who volunteered for the first time at the 2018 Disney Days. Even though she had one of the largest and youngest groups, this tactic prevented any meltdowns from taking place.
In addition to enjoying the rides and park spectacles, each kid gets an allowance for souvenir shopping. For Macias, this part of the day has become his favorite.
“Most of the time, they opt to spend it on something for a foster parent or a sibling,” Macias said. “Even when these kids don’t have much, they choose to spend what they do have on others, so that’s amazing to see.”
Whether they choose to spend their pocket money on themselves or others, each participant gets a special souvenir. A volunteer photographer tags along with each group snapping photos to document the fun throughout the day. Afterward, each participant gets an album of their group’s photos to remember the day of delight spent with their siblings and new friends.
Around dinnertime, all of the groups come together for a huge pizza party in the park’s picnic area, usually donated by Little Caesars or Domino’s. Then it’s back into the park for a few final hours of rides until the park closes for the night.
Though Cherek, like many of the volunteers, has experience with foster youth, spending the day with these reunited siblings put into perspective how important it is to help youth in care stay connected with their brothers and sisters.
“At the start of the day, our siblings were just connected to each other,” Cherek said. “It was a reflection that their sibling might be the only constant they have in their life, and they may not be able to stay with them — they may be separated by miles and miles of distance. So making this space to ensure that siblings have time together is a really under-looked thing in the system.”
Disney Days was originally conceptualized by Danny Mendoza, the founder of Together We Rise, as a way to make his own birthday something bigger than celebrating himself. After learning at age 19 that his 8-year-old cousin was living in a car, Mendoza dedicated his energy to making life better for vulnerable youth — and one way he does that is by turning his birthday party into a dream day for hundreds of foster kids. Disney Days is held during Mendoza’s birthday month of September; at each event, the group sings him Happy Birthday and shares a cake in his honor.
While Disney Days is currently limited to foster youth in and around Southern California due to logistical limitations, Together We Rise runs a number of programs for foster youth nationwide. Their Sweet Cases program provides foster youth with duffel bags so they don’t have to use trash bags when moving placements; they also give bikes and birthday boxes to kids in care, and treat foster teens to $100 shopping sprees.
They’re hoping to start offering more theme park-based programming like Disney Days in other parts of the country. Next on their list is replicating the model in Florida at Walt Disney World, which should roll out in the next year or so.
Reflecting on her time at Disney Days, Cherek said it was nearly as meaningful for the volunteers as it was for the youth.
“They’re so full of innocence and joy and love for you because they recognize what you’re doing for them,” she said. “Even though we were exhausted, we were so full by the end of the day.”
Southern California foster family agencies and group homes interested in sending their youth to Disney Days can email mailto:[email protected].
Sara Tiano is a Los Angeles-based general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change covering child welfare and juvenile justice. As a freelance reporter focused on these issues, her work has previously appeared in WitnessLA, Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.