Markers, paints and brightly colored stickers in a variety of shapes stretched out on several folding tables, waiting for children to grab them and began to decorate the foam butterflies spread out on the dark blue plastic table cloth.
Some children walked by and asked their mother or father for one of the balloons that were clipped to the edge of the table, floating just out of reach.
For Rosa Suau, those children are the same as the more than 450 found in the Fairfax County foster care system: beautiful, deserving of love and happy homes.
May is Foster Family Awarness Month in Fairfax County, she said, and the Butterfly Days event at Springfield Mall last weekend was a community outreach program to help attract new volunteers into the foster parenting world.
"A woman came by yesterday and said she signed up to be a foster parent after this event last year," said Suau, a community educator with the Fairfax County Department of Family Services Foster Care and Adoption Program. "She told me she had just finished getting her approval. It's so exciting," she said.
Most of the children in foster care will be reunited with their natural parents or their birth family, said Anniell Miller, a trainer in the program. "The huge challenge of being a foster parent is being able to deal with that reunification and finding the joy in that for the child they've come to love," she said.
The most successful parents, who open their homes to children time and again, are able to make the transition "as easy as possible" for the child, knowing it's in their best interest.
"I would think it'd be so hard to be a foster parent," said Magda Alarcon, a coordinator for the visitation program and foster home evaluator. "But so many families tell me how much they love the work. It's very rewarding" to care for a child in need, she said.
THE FOSTER CARE program chose colorful foam butterflies to represent the children and the new opportunities available to them and their families. Suau said she hoped a few people who had taken information on the program would consider joining.
"We have too many children; we need more homes for them," she said, looking concerned. "We really don't want to have to keep moving them from place to place; we want to be able to put a child with a family where they can be happy."
A shortage of African-American and Hispanic homes exists, Suau said, two populations in which the number of foster children is growing. Placing children with families of similar backgrounds is important whenever possible, to ensure the child can grow in the same culture as their original home, she said.
"If we can get a couple people signed up from something like this, it's worth is," said Claudia McDowell, a supervisor from the foster care resource unit, between tying balloons. "Even if people can't be a foster parent, there are so many other ways to volunteer and help at-risk children across the county."
Spending a few hours inside a shopping mall, handing out information, is not a bad way to spend a Sunday, McDowell said.
"When you have a family come back a year after talking with us and tell us they signed up, it's a great feeling," she said.