Huskies help Hephzibah kids at park play date

The Huskie Helpers met the foster kids from Hephzibah for the first time this year on Sunday, Sept. 25 at Scoville Park to provide community and friendship for the kids.

“It’s really great to see how much community support Hephzibah has,” said Katherine Watson, the organization’s new volunteer and community relations manager. 

Hephzibah Children’s Association, Oak Park’s oldest social service agency, cares for about 250 children  ages three to twelve through Hephzibah Home and an additional 100 children through its foster care program. Cook County had 3,317 children in foster care as of July 2022.

Hephzibah also provides crisis intervention and day care services. Watson went further to explain, “We really care about what lives children are living.”

Huskie Helpers, a club at Oak Park and River Forest High School dedicated to working with the Hephzibah Home, meets once a week and often has events to give the kids from Hephzibah “an opportunity to just kind of hang out,” said Angie Sakellaris, the sponsor of the OPRF Huskie Helpers. She went on to say, “We’re just there to motivate them.”

Watson added, “Huskie Helpers have been around for years and years now and repeatedly, they’re one of the biggest groups that everyone at Hephzibah has said have been really wonderful.”

For the kids at Hephzibah, hanging with the high schoolers is very helpful, Sakellaris explained. “The Hephzibah children look up to us Huskie Helpers,” she said. “We must set good examples for them.” 

On the day of the event, Sakellaris and 10 high school students who woke up early on a Sunday morning met at Scoville Park. Sakellaris explained their goal was to “get them excited to kind of hang out with us.”

Sakellaris clarified the rules for the students while interacting with the Hephzibah children, including respecting the privacy of the children and making sure the individual conversations about their families are confidential. 

She later explained side hugs, as opposed to front hugs, respect the boundaries of the children. Sakellaris said it is difficult to tell a kid no when they ask for a front hug, but instead to encourage handshakes, high fives and fist bumps.

Watson, also present at the event, explained to the high schoolers that “the kids really, really love having people who are closer to their age than the staff who are all adults. It’s really fun for them to just have something a little bit different to have in their weekday schedule.”

Julia Dingman, an OPRF student and an officer of Huskie Helpers, said, “I’ve been doing it since like the first day of freshman year because I remember that was just the one that popped out.” As she got ready for the event, she noted that, “We had to do a lot of online events for a while, which definitely didn’t have as much impact I’d say as the in-person ones.” 

As the swarm of kids from Hephzibah ultimately reached Scoville Park, the Huskie Helpers’ faces were nothing but delight as many remarked that the weather was perfect for a day like this.

As the kids made it to the high schoolers, their beaming faces and screams of childhood joy made it so the Hephzibah staff could not pair off the kids with the high schoolers fast enough.

Groups went to the playground and played ‘make believe’ with their imagination. On the playground, the smaller kids from Hephzibah led the much bigger kids from Huskie Helpers around the playground. 

Soon after, groups broke off to go play frisbee, tag, hide and seek and telephone, each in different parts of the park. The kids were very excited and could hardly choose which game to play at the time. Every time a new game would be announced, there was a huge bunch of kids that would grab the hand of one of the Huskie Helpers and run toward it as fast as they could. Dingman noted that the Huskie Helpers couldn’t help but catch a case of the “infectious smile” every time a kid would look their way.

Dingman, who was leading the game of telephone with the kids, said that for these events she was “definitely a part of a childhood moment for them.” Dingman went on later to explain, with a huge smile on her face, that she was very glad she joined the club for moments like these.

At one point, one kid from Hephzibah shouted “I love this” while overlooking the playground from atop the jungle gym.

Despite a few bumps and scratches, the day ended with a giant game of red light green light. As the kids from Hephzibah waved goodbye, many of the students remarked how successful the first event of the year was.

In the future, Sakellaris explained they hope to have more in-person Huskie Helper events. When “the same Huskie Helpers coming from event to event, it makes a huge difference,” she said, commenting later that the kids remember the Huskie Helpers’ names.

A club like Huskie Helpers is very beneficial for the students involved and the community, Dingman said. She elaborated that for her, Huskie Helpers provides “a friendship, an older mentor, a relationship that they can foster.”

For Watson, the event was successful as well. She explained that she and Hephzibah just want to “make kids’ lives richer,” and from the smiles of today, it was undoubtedly accomplished. 

Watson concluded by saying,” We’re really happy that the Huskies are coming back.”