WALLA WALLA - "Honey, it's going to be cold. You can't go outside without a jacket."
Pausing from signing in, Jennifer Zamora is patiently explaining to the blond-haired child that this is the natural consequences for ignoring a parent's request to grab a coat.
Shaking her head, her arms wrapped around her shoulders, the 9-year-old isn't taking "no" for an answer. And for good reason - the backyard and parking lot of Christ Lutheran Church are a scene straight from a Disney family movie.
The quantity of outdoor toys surpasses the kid population, meaning everyone can do something from tetherball to lawn games to biking. Three men - dressed in weekend attire and looking like dads - keep an eye on things, checking bike tires and pushing those enjoying the rope swing system strung from a towering oak tree.
And the kids. Boisterous and bubbly, they are here, there and everywhere. Girls hug and boys shout. No one pouts, not even Little Miss No Jacket, who eventually found a sweatshirt to pull over her sun dress.
No matter how much fun is around every corner, this day is not about the kids, not truly. Each child at the church on this Saturday lives in a foster home. And these next four hours are designed to give those foster parents a much-needed break.
Like Zamora, who is dropping off her foster daughter, then rushing back home to paint the downstairs family room, she said.
She and her husband, Ramone, have fostered children for five years. Having some respite gives the family a chance to breathe. Or paint, run errands, sit through a high school volleyball game or eat a quiet dinner.
It also gives her foster daughter a chance to relax in the company of kids who understand the situation and don't ask embarrassing questions, Zamora said. "This is just for her. She counts on it."
The noise level is lower inside the Second Avenue building, but activities are moving right along. Curly-haired toddlers "cook" in the nursery and two preteens play a ball-toss game in the wide hallway, falling on the floor with laughter every few minutes.
In the spacious church fellowship hall, set up with a reading area and well-supplied craft tables, volunteers Carolyn Frye and JoAnne Savage are intent on yarn work with middle-schoolers.
"I'm making a purse," said 14-year-old Toni, pulling raspberry-colored loops over and under their kiwi-hued twins.
One chair over, her seventh-grade partner works similar magic on his loom.
"Sometimes my mom makes me come," Toni conceded with a half-smile. "But I have fun when I come. I like to play ping pong and do crafts."
She's not sure what her guardians do while she's at Christ Lutheran, though. "I think sometimes they go to their friend's house."
The Foster Parents Night Out is the work of church members, who copied it from a church in Salem, Ore. Nearing its second anniversary, the program is organized by church member Charlene Kaaen.
Typically, 24 or so children are signed in for the four-hour afternoon, and it takes at least 15 volunteers to make everything work, Kaaen said. "Or as many as I can get."
The church underwrites everything, budgeting $75 each month for the meals, supplies and new toys
The retired educator taught young children for 35 years. Looking back, she can see how much support the foster parents she encountered then must have needed.
The moms and dads who come to Christ Lutheran for this free day care are good about expressing their gratitude, but the volunteers are the ones really enjoying the moment, Kaaen claimed.
People like Darlene Babcock and Amelia Grinstead, who are stirring large pans of macaroni and cheese in preparation for the meal that will soon be served. The menu includes green beans, apple slices and frosted cupcakes bedazzled with Halloween sprinkles.
Both women are happy to help, they said. "I was a foster parent," Grinstead said. "I wish we would have had something like this."
The need for help and respite continues to be huge, noted Rosy Nechodom, director of the region's foster parent organization. She's here on this day as a foster mom and a foster-parent trainer for SPOKES - Solutions for Parents, Opportunities for Kids, Establishing Success.
The church-provided respite day is a trial balloon for other communities, Nechodom said. In Walla Walla, it's been invaluable to parents, as a time to connect with friends and spouses.
Bringing a foster child into a family is so much more than simply adding another body to the brood. "There are so many more issues. They have more social and emotional needs, more anger and more confusion. It contributes to how much time they need," she said. "Most of these children haven't been raised with the same boundaries and social skills. All of those things need to be taught."
And more time must be dedicated to meeting the requirements of the state, with its many rules and regulations. Communications and paperwork gnaw away more of the day.
Then there is simply the routine of fostering, she added. "In the first 30 days, you have to get the child to a doctor, a dentist and sometimes an eye appointment. You have to take them to counselors and visits with the (birth) family. To coordinate all that takes a master scheduler."
John Ladderud's duties, while requiring muscle, are not as complex. Each month he hauls every piece of outdoor equipment used for the event, unloading in the building's back parking lot.
"Whatever keeps them busy," he said, sending a kid skyward on his custom swing rigging.
His dream is to get his hands on some pipe to construct a permanent swing set on the back lawn, the veterinarian said.
As well, he'd love to see some younger men join him on the playground - the pay is no good but the job perks make up for that, Ladderud believes. "It's easy. Just playing with the kids, making them feel important. It's their night."
For more information, call 525-2243.