By Lori Roach
Sometimes the adversity we face as a child becomes the single biggest catalyst for making a true difference in the world today. Such is the case for the founders of Elves on a Mission. Childhood friends, Chris Kurtz and Lowann VanLeuvan have had plenty of adversity in their lives, but you just would not know it by the way they approach life today.
Chris moved to Elgin, Oregon when he was ten years old. He was quiet, a little timid and spent the next nine years doing his best to fit into a class full of the usual misfits you find throughout grade school, junior high and high school in rural-town America. He attended grade school at Stella Mayfield Elementary and high school at Elgin High. He also spent those years and many subsequent years overcoming the trauma he had experienced as a foster child. Chris had spent five and a half years in the foster care system between the age of four and a half and ten, bouncing around six different houses during that time….some were worse than others, but to say the least, life was not grand in those houses. Nor was it great to be in the Oregon foster care system. There has been little improvement over the years, too few case workers to handle the abundance of children who just want to be loved and find a forever home. In 2016 there were 7,625 children in the foster care system in Oregon.
“We were adopted when I was ten and my brother, Damon was four and a half. Shortly after we moved to Elgin,” said Chris, “so Elgin was the first place I ever lived that felt like home. My dad, Larry Kurtz got hired as a teacher and coach at Elgin High School and my mom, Dianne, was an RN at Grand Ronde Hospital.”
Although Lowann did not experience being a foster child, she was adopted by her adoptive dad when she was young. This in itself brings about emotions that she has had to deal with and work through as she has made her way through her childhood, which was also in the halls of Stella Mayfield Elementary and Elgin High School, also with the same group of kids, who eventually graduated from EHS in 1985 and set out to change the world, each in their own way. Lowann’s love for her community is evident in the way she supports many of the local organizations with her time and efforts. Lowann’s volunteer portion of her life started when she was in high school when she began serving meals to seniors and also spent time raising money for the March of Dimes. She has spent countless hours at Imbler High School, the school her two children recently graduated from, where she was on the booster club as well as on the parent advisory committee. She has also helped the Elgin Stampeders in a variety of roles, including serving food at the alumni banquet, working at the ticket booth at the Elgin Stamped, taking money at the Elgin Crab Feed and working Chute 9, and if you aren’t sure what Chute 9 is, you might want to show up at the 2021 Elgin Stampede to experience it yourself.
At their 30th class reunion, which took place at Wallowa Lake, Chris and Lowann just happened to spend some time together visiting about the usual things you talk about when your find yourself surround by the adult versions of your childhood friends. Lowann, who had just recently moved back to Elgin after being gone for many years, told Chris that she really wanted to do something to give back to the community. Lowann talked about maybe starting a pajama project for kids in the area, where she would buy pajamas for those in need. Chris had already been thinking along the same lines.
“And I said, hold that thought, I have an idea,” said Chris. “I want to do something for Christmas….it just took off from there.”
Elves on a Mission was born.
“Lowann and I firmly believe its small acts of kindness that change the world,” said Chris.
Elves on a Mission was created out of a love for community, a heart for foster children and the families that take them in, and a strong desire to give back to the small town that help raise them.
The goal is to provide foster families in Union, Baker and Wallowa counties with Christmas… from the tree, to the dinner, and of course the gifts, not only for the foster children themselves, but also any siblings that may live in the home with them.
“Our hope is to also raise awareness of the need for fosters families to feel supported, as well as the need for foster families to be better supported,” said Chris. “I keep going back to the thought that if a foster family feels that support, we are helping to create a safe place for more parents to become foster families, or those that have done it already to continue to be foster families. The sad fact is that some simply quit, because there is not a system in place in this area for them to get the support they need.”
Right now Elves on a Mission serves as a bridge between the local governmental organization that helps foster families and the families themselves.
“Elves On A Mission has been a great blessing to our family,” said foster mom, Becky Foster. “We have been doing foster care for almost 17 years. We never wanted any special attention or a pat on the back for caring for the kids. But, it can be a very lonely, and challenging journey. So, when we first found out last Christmas that Elves On A Mission wanted to bless ALL our kids with gifts, not just the foster kids, but our adopted and biological children as well, we were really stunned. For us, it was like someone was saying, “We see you. We recognize the hard work you are doing.” And the fact that this group is made up of private citizens that give their time, money, and want to do something positive to enrich the lives of our foster kids, and the people who care for them, makes it that much more meaningful. So, to Chris and all who give their time, money, energy, and love to this organization, our family says THANK YOU!!!”
Elves on a Mission had their first mission the Christmas of 2017. When friends and family heard about the grassroots organization they showed up and they showed up in a big way. Toy after toy showed up at Chris’ home in Tigard. From there they were hauled over to Elgin, where Lowann and her friends wrapped presents for hours. Foster families were blessed with Christmas that year, not only did they entire foster family get presents, but Elves on a Mission also provided a Christmas tree along with Christmas dinner.
“The first Christmas of Elves on a Mission the foster kids had requests for simple items. Then they realized they got exactly what they asked for, so the next Christmas they asked for things they really wanted, not just items they thought they should ask for and it was so cool,” said Lowann.
“It’s all about what they want,” said Chris. “That could mean a Lego spaceship, or Apple products or a Kindle, even a bicycle. One child wanted ski gear so they could join Ski Club. Elves on a Mission found someone to donate all the gear, while Anthony Lakes provide skis and lift tickets. It’s all about connecting people that want to help, with a child in need.”
By 2018 friends were already asking what can we do? How can we make this even better than the previous year. Once again, friends showed up at Chris’ place in droves, bringing stacks of gifts for Elves on a Mission. The Elgin High School Class of 1985 has been a huge support in Elves on a Mission.
“What Chris and Lowann are doing for foster children through Elves on a Mission is priceless. They are giving hope, showing that someone cares,” said friend and former classmate, Paula Niziolek. “My parents were foster parents and my youngest brother was adopted into our family through that system, so this mission is near and dear to my heart. I’m delighted to do my small part by donating school supplies and Christmas gifts to help the Elves brighten these kid’s lives.”
The event was even more successful than the previous year, then word got to Chris and Lowann about the need for school supplies for these same families. They barely gave it a second thought before they dove right in and began organizing a school supply event. Not only did they give away school supplies to the foster families in Union County, but they also provided a Bar-b-que lunch as well.
“It has been an honor to work with this organization,” said Teresa Hylton-Shaffer. “I have some friends that were in the foster care system, and I have learned so much from them. This is a wonderful organization that helps 100’s of foster care children that have had their worlds turned upside down and a smile is worth a 1000’s words.”
In August of this year school supplies were provided to foster families in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, taking the burden off so many during this time of COVID. This year the Elves on a Mission, in true Elves on a Mission form, went just a step further during their back to school missions. A donor, who just happened to be adopted as a child and just happened to be Chris’ brother Damon Kurtz, stepped in to help them complete a special mission for Elgin’s Stella Mayfield Elementary School, where Chris, Lowann and Damon all went to school. Damon donated $5,000 through his business, Allegiance Logistics, enough money to make sure every single Elgin elementary student received a set of their very own school supplies.
With Covid donations down this year, he wanted to help due to the economic impact. “I got into a business that actually benefitted from this time we are all experiencing,” said Damon. “if I was going to put money toward this organization, I really wanted to specifically donate toward this community where I grew up.”
Missions completed….and completed well.
“Our motto is to give all foster kids a level playing field. When they go to school you want them to have quality items, you don’t want them to be singled out,” said Chris.
“You just don’t know who you are going to impact,” said Lowann.
It may not have happened the exact moment they were born, but for Chris and Lowann, their roots truly do run deep. Deep in the heart of northeast Oregon, where their good childhood memories can be felt at every turn in the small towns that dot the landscape, through the friendships they made at a young age there, and now, through Elves on a Mission; those roots, still in their infancy, will take hold and continue to strengthen as the years pass by. What they have created and what they are doing each Christmas and before each school year is providing hope to many who, like Chris, have wound up in the Oregon foster system by no fault of their own. Chris and Lowann are truly making a difference in the many lives they are touching in such a special way.