John's Picnic

There are times over the course of everyone’s life when someone does something so amazing that a simple thank you does not feel like an adequate expression of gratitude. You rack your brain trying to come up with the perfect combination of words to write in your thank you note. You may wonder and worry about how you will ever be able to repay such an act of kindness. The stress of it all keeps you from remembering something you already know: repayment was not expected, nor is an elaborate or eloquent thank you required. The act of kindness bestowed upon you was simply that – an act of kindness. It was not a debt to be repaid or an expectation of gifts and grand gestures in return.

CASA is fortunate to have such a person partnering with us and supporting our mission to change the lives of foster children. Sharon Engstrom is one of those individuals with a seemingly infinite capacity for giving, and a humble spirit that does not want or need recognition. Yet we want to recognize her nonetheless because this year Sharon went above and beyond for CASA and the children we serve, taking her generosity to the next level.

Sharon and her husband Jay suffered the tragedy of losing their son, John Michael Engstrom, to leukemia. To honor their son’s life and legacy, they created the John Michael Engstrom Memorial Foundation to help youth. After learning about CASA from a friend who is an advocate, Sharon decided she would like CASA to be one of the John Michael Engstrom Foundation beneficiaries, thus, “John’s Fund” was formed. For several years Sharon’s generosity and John’s Fund has allowed CASA to meet the needs of hundreds of children we serve. These funds have covered a range of expenses, such as tutoring costs, laptops, and so much more.

This year, in addition to John’s Fund, Sharon took on CASA’s annual Back to School Picnic! By “took on”, I mean she handled this event in its entirety. Sharon and her friends prepared, planned, and worked the picnic. In previous years, with the much appreciated help of volunteers, CASA staff were heavily involved in preparing for and working the event. This year we served as extra support because Sharon and her friends had everything, and I mean everything, covered. They took the picnic to new heights! A picnic which was aptly named “John’s Picnic”. John’s Fund and John’s Picnic could be named virtually anything, but using John’s name is another way we honor his life. This year naming the event John’s Picnic also solved the ever-present issue of maintaining our kiddos’ confidentiality and ensuring the event was identifiable without having CASA in the name or on the signage.

After I quickly realized I would be more in the way than helpful, I decided to wander around and check out all of the activities offered. There was face painting, airbrush painting, caricature artists – and that was just one small corner of the picnic! I saw boys and girls turn into Spiderman, butterflies, and grinning ear-to-ear at their cool “tattoo”. A group of boys of all ages were giving volunteers a work out as they channeled their inner Babe Ruth and hit balls so far they even surprised themselves. As someone with zero aim, I looked on with pride (and a teeny tiny bit of jealousy) as one dominated the bean bag toss, making every single one with seemingly no effort. Advocates and their kiddos laughed at each other as one or both of them struggled to keep their hula hoops up. Bubbles were blown, cookies were decorated, and art was created.

In all of this fun and greatness, you wouldn’t think anything could be done to make it much better, but there was! There was live Hawaiian music and the kiddos were able to give hula dancing a shot. One little boy stole the show, and likely a few hearts, as the first brave soul to dance. Even with so many eyes on him, there wasn’t an ounce of shyness and he looked like he was having a blast. That’s still not the best part! Not only was there live Hawaiian music, there was a live performance of hula dancing. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I felt like I was on a Hawaiian vacation, enjoying a luau.  And Sharon Engstrom made all of it happen.

Thank you notes were written by kiddos and advocates alike. They thanked the volunteers for their time, shared how much fun they had, and for the entertainment. One of my favorite thank you notes had a donut on it (because who doesn’t love donuts!) and said, “Dear CASA volunteers, thank you for being so generous, creative, and awesome!” I think that note hit the nail on the head and expressed what so many others were also thinking. One kiddo had such a good time that he expressed his thanks with four notes.

From setup to cleanup, Sharon and her friends had all hands on deck. Their time and hard work didn’t just result in our kiddos having a great time. There were advocates expressing how impressed they were to one another as well as their case supervisors. All of the volunteers looked like they genuinely enjoyed being there. It was a good day for everyone all around! To top it all off, before all the CASA staff went into full panic mode wondering how we could possibly follow suit for next year’s picnic, Sharon informed us she would like to handle the event next year as well, allowing us to breathe easy while simultaneously proving her capacity for giving is seemingly infinite.

John’s Fund and John’s Picnic not only honor John Michael Engstrom’s life, they touch and brighten the lives of our youth. Sharon Engstrom is truly a selfless and humble individual. CASA is honored to be in partnership with her.

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