Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa, FL, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Southern California, or Joe’s Hometown of Hazleton, PA. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Amber Cline | Heart Gallery of Tampa
When she isn’t caring for her two toddlers or assisting patients as a physical therapist assistant at Tampa’s St. Joseph’s Hospital-South, or working on her bachelor’s degree at the University of South Florida, Amber Cline likes to party. She parties a lot.
As a volunteer member of the Heart Gallery of Tampa’s Dream Team, Amber helps coordinate monthly birthday parties and quality of life experiences for children awaiting adoption in the Hillsborough County foster care system. The Heart Gallery’s volunteer program fills the gap in services for those children who miss out on significant milestones and experiences not otherwise afforded to them.
“Amber is a tremendous asset and a joy to the team,” says Amanda Page-Zwierko Executive Director of the Heart Gallery of Tampa. “Her sincere passion to ensure each foster child receives a special birthday is inspiring and she is one of our most reliable volunteers. We are an effective team with the support of each person who gives their time to make a difference for our children and we’re grateful for all of our volunteers who share Amber’s infectious enthusiasm.”
Says Amber: “These kids have to grow up way too fast in the foster care system. These kids are just kids. They’re normal kids. There is nothing that they did to be in the circumstances they’re in. So, to have a day when they can just have a normal birthday party is important. Many times, the party we give them is the first party they have had in their life. They can just have fun and they don’t have to worry about anything. That to me is pretty cool.”
Amber and her fellow Dream Team members are usually in the background, planning and preparing and making sure every party runs smoothly.
“What a lot of people don’t realize about kids in foster care is that they have so many adults in and out of their lives and that is not necessarily always what they need,” she says. “Mentors are fantastic and serve a key role, but sometimes, for example at the birthday parties, the kids don’t want some strange person staring at them during their party. That’s not fun. We do whatever each child wants for their party and try to stay in the background.”
The parties take all different forms. This summer, the Dream Team hosted a 16th birthday party for a youngster whose siblings were in a different group foster home.
“She didn’t want a party,” says Amber. “She just wanted to have lunch with her siblings, a brother and a sister. They all had a seafood lunch together (she loves crab legs,) and then she and her sister wanted to get their hair and nails done and go to the mall.
“It breaks my heart that there are kids out there who don’t have anyone to show up for them,” Amber lamented. “I go through everything I can to make sure my kids’ first birthdays were perfect and they won’t even remember, and then there’s 13 year old kids that have never had a birthday party. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
The birthday parties are actually the centerpiece of a number of programs the Dream Team is involved with.
The Heart Gallery’s Summer Buddies program is another. Volunteers fundraise and collect items for summer fun kits to deliver to children in foster care. The kits include bathing suits, flip flops, towels, and depending on the child’s age, items such as bubbles or sports gear. “When they are not in school, they don’t have a lot going on in the summer,” says Amber. “We are just giving them something they can do during the summer.”
Not long after the summer program, The Dream Teamers are back at it again with their holiday campaign which partners with local businesses to display wreaths or Christmas trees to generate donations of gift cards to fund the Dream Team’s activities through the year.
Then there’s the Be Mine fundraiser held in February that helps fund all of the Heart Gallery of Tampa’s programs and displays. It’s a unique, fun event that the tireless Amber loves helping coordinate by seeking donors and sponsors and putting experience packages together for auction.
You don’t have to look far to find the source of Amber’s inspiration.
After growing up in New Hampshire, Amber went south to Charleston, South Carolina for college. It was there she met her husband, Anthony, who was active duty Air Force, and is now a civilian critical care nurse and an Air Force Reserve flight nurse at Macdill.
They have two young children, Lexi and Noah.
“Before we had our daughter, we had two miscarriages and that was one of the big reasons why I became so passionate about the Heart Gallery,” Amber says. “We went through a lot to have our kids and we were fortunate that we were able to have children. But it bothered me that while we were going through everything to have children that there are all these kids out there in foster care that feel like nobody wants them. They don’t have a place or a family of their own.”
The ultimate goal of The Heart Gallery is to find “Forever Homes” for foster children through raising awareness of Tampa’s waiting children in foster care. In the meantime, while that process plays out, the Dream Team wants only to give those children an opportunity to experience some aspects of a normal family life.
Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
Amber Cline (first from left) and other key members of the Heart Gallery of Tampa’s team.
If you are interested in learning more about or volunteering with the Dream Team, contact them at email@example.com.