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Promises2Kids’ La Jolla founders celebrate 40 years of helping children in need

La Jolla residents Norma Hirsh and Renee Comeau founded the Promises2Kids organization 40 years ago.
La Jolla residents Norma Hirsh and Renee Comeau founded Promises2Kids 40 years ago as the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation of San Diego County.
(Courtesy)

Promises2Kids, a foster-child advocacy and child abuse prevention organization started by two La Jollans, has come a long way in the past four decades. As the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, founders Renee Comeau and Norma Hirsh spoke with the La Jolla Light to reflect on Promises2Kids’ past and future.

After her daughter was born, Hirsh started volunteering at the Hillcrest Receiving Home emergency shelter for children. Having seen and heard of horrific examples of child mistreatment, she knew she needed to act.

Comeau said she had a tragic childhood — she lost three brothers — and wanted to do whatever she could to help children in challenging circumstances.

Together, they joined with others to form what was then the Child Abuse Prevention Foundation of San Diego County. They created bank accounts to which donations could be deposited to help buy emergency baby food for mothers in need. Then they set their sights on something bigger.

Under the new name Promises2Kids, their first major project, in the early 1990s, was to build the A.B. and Jessie Polinsky Children’s Center to replace the Hillcrest Receiving Home.

“We worked with the county and had tremendous support from them,” Comeau said. “A state-of-the-art center with cottages was designed and developed and we raised the money in a short period of time and built the Polinsky Center,” which opened in 1994.

The center, under the auspices of San Diego County, is a 24-hour facility for the temporary emergency shelter of children who must be separated from their families for their own safety or when parents cannot provide care.

“I remember taking [then-San Diego Chargers football player] Junior Seau to the center once and there was a little girl hiding under a table, and he got on his hands and knees to crawl under the table to talk to this little girl,” Hirsh said. “He had the passion and compassion, and the visit to the center brought it out. But I have other football players decline a visit because they said they didn’t want the kids to see them cry. Being there is an emotional experience.”

From there, Promises2Kids launched a program to provide services for children at the Polinsky Center outside the county budget, known as Foster Funds.

“Things like birthday parties, holiday gifts and Thanksgiving dinners, music instruments and dentistry,” Comeau said. “In some cases, these kids have told us the gifts they got at these birthday parties are the only presents they ever received.”

They also formed Camp Connect to give siblings in foster care who are placed in separate homes the chance to reconnect through a four-day summer camp as well as recreational and educational day camps.

As the children graduate from high school and transition out of the foster system, Promises2Kids has a program called Guardian Scholars, which provides college preparatory support, mentoring and financial assistance for housing and food during college.

“Nationally, less than 50 percent of kids in the foster system graduate high school,” Hirsh said. “We have all of our kids graduate high school, and 85 percent graduate vocational school, community college or university.”

When the Guardian Scholars program started, most participants said they wanted to be social workers or enter law enforcement “because that was all they knew,” Hirsh said.

Recently, participants have announced their intention to be everything from mechanics to poets to accountants.

Creating these programs and watching them thrive over the past 40 years has taught Comeau that “some of these children are so impressive with the strength they have and what they have endured,” she said. “For me, it has been a journey to see how these survivors can end up. We’re doing what I know is right. You can heal the scars, but there will be long-lasting effects. But the fact they have the moxie to get through this tells a lot about their inner strength. It’s inspiring.”

“It’s thrilling,” Hirsh said. “I love kids and think this is what we should be doing — protecting children. … It keeps me humble. The resilience I learned from them and seeing what they endure makes me a better mother. I see them as my kids because they are our kids and our community.”

Comeau said that “we have been the go-to in the county for child abuse- and foster-related issues. As such, we have continued to evolve … and the needs have evolved. We’re more big picture now, and we are doing more to ensure the youth we serve are going on to live healthy, productive lives.”

To learn more, visit promises2kids.org.