With the ushering in of Thanksgiving, the holiday season has officially arrived. Soon, Christmas will be here and families will be waking up on Christmas morning, full of joy and exchanging gifts. Parents will look on proudly as their children shred through layers of wrapping paper, wearing excited smiles.

Though, for many children, these smiles will be nearly nonexistent.

In the Coastal Bend, and beyond, there are countless children in foster care. Many of them are in shelters, waiting to be placed with a foster family. Right now, in the state of Texas alone, there are 30,000 children in foster care; 6,000 currently waiting to be adopted. In Texas, several foster care agencies operate year-round to help place these children in safe and loving homes. But one of these agencies, Pathways Youth & Family Services, is doing a little extra this year.

Cheryl Gibson, a foster parent for over ten years who has fostered 31 children, has experienced this fact time and again.

“A lot of my foster children come into my home and don’t have a clue as to what Christmas is; they’ve never experienced it before.” said Gibson. “I had a four-year-old boy who had never experienced Christmas, and on Christmas morning when he walked out, and there was a bicycle under the tree, his eyes just lit up. He just couldn’t believe it. He asked me if this was all for him, and I said, ‘Yes, it’s all for you.’ It was absolutely amazing.”

Pathways, a community-based social service that specializes in behavioral health, adoption and foster care, has partnered with the Harbor Playhouse to help give the foster children of the Coastal Bend a proper Christmas experience. This includes finding sponsors to fulfill gift items for each child on a wish list, and accepting donated unwrapped gifts. But the experience goes beyond just toys. The greatest gift of all is the creation of lifelong memories for these foster children, many of whom have never truly experienced the holiday before.

Vanessa Rohrer Barker, director of the Young People’s Theatre (YPT) at Harbor Playhouse, is working closely with Pathways in order to change that.

“For me, it’s about the experience. I want them to have a night, completely free of charge, where they’re going to get to sit underneath where it snows in the theater and just forget about everything,” said Rohrer Barker. “A toy is going to last a year or two, but an experience like that, knowing that they can just forget everything, hopefully it will last a lifetime.”

Pathways also hopes to use this partnership as a means to raise awareness about the overwhelming need for new foster families in the Coastal Bend and beyond. Jennifer Davis, family specialist at Pathways, states that the agency currently has to place children out of region because of the lack of local foster families.

“When a child grows up in their community, then you remove that child outside of the community, not only do they lose their home, family and friends; they're losing the community they knew and grew up in. So it’s just another loss. We are trying to keep them in the community,” said Davis.

Since starting with the agency in March, Davis has also pushed to get some of the foster children more involved in the community. This is what ultimately led to the partnership and friendship between Pathways and Harbor Playhouse. In the summer, Harbor Playhouse accepted four Pathways foster children on scholarship to attend their Young People’s Theatre summer camp. For most of these four children, the experience changed them and helped them grow and become more confident.

For the Harbor Playhouse, who are also accepting donations for the For the Love of Strays nonprofit organization this holiday season, having the Pathways children be a part of their camp inspired them to continue forward.

“We were thrilled to provide a space and a program where kids are completely affirmed for just trying something new,” said Carla Gardiner, interim executive director at Harbor Playhouse.

This thrill eventually led the Playhouse to again contact Pathways, this time about working together in order to bring Christmas to the foster children. The Playhouse has set up a tree in the lobby, where donated and sponsored gifts will be placed. Then, on Nov. 30, the Pathways foster children and families will be attending a special performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The children will be placed in the section of the theater where snow will fall. For many, if not all of the foster children who will be in attendance, this will be the first show they have ever seen.

“I feel honored that we get to do this, and ecstatic that Pathways was so open to the idea, and that they feel such a great friendship with Harbor Playhouse,” said Rohrer Barker. “Personally, I was in foster care when I was a baby. So it’s definitely a passion project for me, because I wouldn’t be here without foster families and a Pathways-like organization. It’s important to me.”

In the end, the running theme this project and partnership between Pathways and Harbor Playhouse has is community, and the idea of people coming together and working together to make a good thing happen for the less fortunate.

“This is where a Christmas Story begins and The Harbor Playhouse, Vanessa, Carla, and the community are helping to write the pages in that story for these children. The performing arts and that of what is done at The Harbor Playhouse, truly does bring the true message of believing; believing that all things are possible if you believe in yourself.”

Donations are now being collected through Dec. 15. For more information, contact the offices of Harbor Playhouse at 361-882-5500. Wish lists for both Pathways Youth & Family Services and For the Love of Strays are posted on the Harbor Playhouse website at www.harborplayhouse.com

November is also National Adoption Month. For more information on becoming a foster parent or adopting a foster child, visit Pathways’ website at www.Pathway.org