Matt Driscoll

It started in her garage. Now, a Puyallup woman helps clothe almost 1,500 foster kids a year

It all started in Erika Thompson’s garage.

Thompson, who has been a foster parent for a decade, remembers it well.

Not long before, she welcomed the first of what would become many foster children into her home. Like many foster kids, the child arrived on Thompson’s doorstep in crisis and with almost nothing.

The child was from King County, so Thompson was able to turn to a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides support and services for foster kids and their caregivers, including new and gently used clothing.

Then Thompson welcomed her second foster child, this one from Pierce County. Again, she turned to the Seattle-based nonprofit, only to be met with a cold truth.

At the time, there was no similar service of its size and scope in this area.

So Thompson created what would eventually become the Wishing Well, soliciting donations of clothing from friends and family and organizing it in bins in her Puyallup garage.

Thompson, 45, describes herself as “a problem solver,” who “instead of complaining about it, likes to fix it.”

Eight years after The Wishing Well got its nonprofit status — graduating from Thompson’s garage to a large storefront of Pacific Avenue in Parkland — the work is her passion.

“We’re not out here to save the world. We’re just here to show kids that there are people who really care about you,” Thompson said this week. “We’re very busy.”

That’s no exaggeration. Together with her husband, Brent, Thompson has been a foster parent since 2008. During that time, 126 foster kids have stayed with her — some for only days and some for close to a year.

The couple has two biological daughters, both now in college, and have adopted two more children since they opened up their home to fostering. Aiden, now 9, was the Thompsons’ sixth foster child. Danika, now 4, was the couple’s 92nd.

In addition to serving as a foster parent, Thompson is the parent recruiter and liaison for the Pierce County chapter of Fostering Together, which contracts with the state Department of Children, Youth and Families to help recruit and retain foster parents.

Foster kids, in other words, have become Thompson’s life’s work, and the Wishing Well is an outgrowth of that.

Typically, there are anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 Pierce County children cycling through the foster care system at any one time, and last year 1,470 of them received free clothing from the Wishing Well.

“It’s hopping. Any day you go in there, we’ve got a steady stream of donations coming in and scheduled appointments,” Thompson says of the Wishing Well, which accepts donations from individual donors and large companies .

“When kids enter foster care, they’re pretty much stripped of all decisions. The Wishing Well gives them some power to at least pick out their clothes,” she adds. “The kids leave with a ton of smiles. When you enter care, it’s super scary. And for foster parents, it’s a quick way to kind of get to know your child. I think it’s fun first experience. It’s kind of like a bonding thing, so that’s been fun to see.”

Over the years, Thompson’s operation has grown. What started with new and slightly used clothing has blossomed into a nonprofit that also provides equipment, books and toys. The Wishing Well also has expanded to help foster parents pay for enrichment activities like camps, swim lessons and trips to the zoo and now hosts monthly events.

Last year, the Wishing Well’s Christmas event provided gifts, stockings, books and holiday pajamas to 672 Pierce County foster kids. The nonprofit’s annual Easter egg hunt is coming up next month.

Cara Manthey lives in Graham and has been a foster parent for nine years. She welcomes emergency placements, meaning kids often arrive in the middle of the night, and over the years has helped to temporarily house 225 children.

One of her first calls, she says, is usually to the Wishing Well, where it’s not unusual to pick up a week’s worth of clothing and other essential supplies.

Manthey says she’s seen the impact the Wishing Well can have.

“All of our kids come directly from their home, and so they come with nothing. Before the Wishing Well was around, I had to go shopping in an emergency, and it hurts the pocketbook a lot,” Manthey says. “One thing that’s so nice is Erika has such pride in what she does, and she’s been that way from the beginning.”

“It really helps (the kids) to feel really special,” Manthey adds. “It shows them that somebody cares about them, because they are typically very, very sad, and in crisis. It’s a huge step for me as being a foster parent to building trust and building a relationship with these children.”

For Thompson, it’s all in a day’s work — and the work is never dull. She prides herself on being a matchmaker, able to find the things and resources foster parents need, whatever it might be.

Currently, she says, she’s putting a call out for luggage, after a local social worker described having to move foster kids with nothing but big black trash bags to carry their few belongings.

It’s an occurrence Thompson describes as unfortunately common.

“No one wants to see that,” Thompson says. “Essentially, you’re telling children their belongings are trash.”

True to form, Thompson plans to do something about it. It’s her nature.

“I think our daughter said it best,” she tells me. “Foster care isn’t something we do anymore. It’s who we are.”