“Are you sure these clothes are for us?” a young boy asked his mother. The bundle of new clothing, with the store tags still attached, cast doubt in the boy’s mind, since he could only remember wearing used or hand-me-down outfits.
Another child returned for a summer week at a Wisconsin camp for children with learning disabilities even though his family couldn’t afford the fee.
Daycare tuition was covered for yet another child, whose mother was struggling financially. “She wanted to work,” Laura Cowley says. “She just needed a little step to go forward.”
For the last five years, Cowley and a small team of volunteers have supported Waconia’s School District 110 families, who are financially in need or facing other struggles, through donations of clothing, holiday gifts, gas cards, tutoring, tuition and fee assistance to camps and athletic programs and the list continues. Cowley launched Backyard Wishes five years ago, which became a nonprofit three years ago, and the six-member board has assisted at least 200 children.
“When people don’t have food on the table, there are so many organizations to help,” Cowley says, but she noticed a dearth of services to help school-age kids’ families meet other financial challenges. “So many kids want to play sports or go to camps, and it’s not in the cards,” Cowley says.
The nonprofit organization doesn’t place many parameters around what it will donate or offer in terms of services. One family was driving to and from Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis to visit their sick child, so the group provided gas cards to ease the financial burden. A family that suffered the loss of a newborn received meals provided through the program and gift cards for dinners out.
Requests come by way of the watchful eyes and hearts of the school district’s staff.
After the schools have identified a family or child in need, a volunteer from Backyard Wishes contacts the family to get additional information. “This is something our teachers have been asking for all along,” Khuzana DeVaan, principal of Waconia’s Southview Elementary, says of the program.
She explains that staff members witness firsthand the effects on students when families struggle for a variety of reasons. “A temporary crisis in someone’s life impacts a child,” DeVaan says, adding that families do as much as they can to handle the situation on their own. “They don’t expect people to swoop in and solve all their problems.”
Cowley understands what it feels like to need assistance. “I’ve been there,” she tells recipients. About 16 years ago, Cowley and her husband, Dermot, were going through lean times as they pursued their business dreams. “One day, a week before Christmas, two gentlemen showed up with garbage bags filled with toys [for sons Jake and Connor],” she says. “It was just the most amazing thing. It just made Christmas.”
Later that year, Cowley’s father paid her sons’ sport fees, and she made a mental note that once her family was on the other side of struggle, they would do in kind for other families in need. “I know what it’s like,” she says. “Through no fault of your own, things happen.”
Support Backyard Wishes at a fundraiser and barn dance slated for 7 p.m. September 19 in Waconia Township. Only 100 tickets, at $50 per person, are available. Music will be provided by The Tex Pistols Band. Non-alcoholic beverages, snacks and a dessert bar are included. Tickets are available by calling Backyard Wishes board vice president and secretary Ann Mitchell at 952.292.0810.
Send gift cards or cash donations to Backyard Wishes, 4 E. Main St., Waconia MN 55387.