Even the most emotionally closed-off children at Sunshine Acres, a nondenominational Christian group home in east Mesa, can begin to open up if given the chance to work with animals, said Cindy Humphrey, the facility's operations director.
Most of Sunshine Acres' 60 children have ended up there because their parents are facing jail time, she said.
"The parents are drug addicts, alcoholics. They hear about us and don't want to lose their children to the system, where they can't find them," Humphrey said.
On Sunday, the facility, southeast of Loop 202 and Higley Road, hosted its 50th annual barbecue to raise money for the home's 4-H program, where the children can learn about and work with horses and steers. The program helps the children with trust issues and teaches them responsibility, Humphrey said.
"Trust is the biggest thing. You won't make them love you. But we can reach them through an animal," she said. "You can see the light come back in their eyes."
Sandy Pickens, treasurer for the Mesa Optimist Club, which hosts the event, said organizers barbecued 2,200 pounds of beef in the hopes of attracting 3,000 attendees. At $8 a plate, the event aimed to raise about $24,000 for Sunshine Acres' 4-H program, she said.
However, the rain and chilly weather put an early damper on attendance. In previous years, the lunch tent normally has been full by noon, Pickens said. But this year, many seats remained empty. The event attracted more than 80 volunteers, including Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who helped serve food in the afternoon.
Mesa resident Jim Miller brought three generations of his family to the barbecue. Miller said he became interested after seeing a performance staged by children living at Sunshine Acres.
"It's a wonderful thing," he said.
Humphrey said the home is running near capacity in terms of the number of children it can accommodate. Expansion plans have been drafted to increase that number to around 250 children, but a funding source hasn't yet materialized, she said.
"That's going to take us years to get up to that, unless somebody drops $10 million on us," she said.
The home's $2.4 million budget comes from private and corporate donations, and from the sale of donated items, she said. No public funds are accepted, she said.
Recently, a man in Dewey who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer donated a dozen miniature ponies, along with $10,000 worth of tack. Another donor contributed a $30,000 Arabian horse. And the facility also houses about five steers. The children get to work with the animals, she said.
To donate or volunteer, call (480) 852-2540 or visit www.sunshineacres.org.