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A Moment with Board Member and Event Chair, Tom Hartnagel

A Moment with Tom Hartnagel

A sit down chat with Angels’ Arms Board Member and Fall Event Chair, Tom Hartnagel 

A yearly auction has been an important part of Angels’ Arms history since the organization was founded 21 years ago. The momentum that turned that event from a simple auction into a magnificent gala came from one of Angels’ Arms Founding Fathers, Tom Hartnagel, who has chaired the auction for each of those 21 years. Let’s take a look back and discover how the auction grew and evolved into the “must attend” event of the season!

Learning about foster care

Tom’s wife Dana taught school with Bess Wilfong (founder and Executive Director of Angels’ Arms). After having dinner with Bess and several other couples “we learned more about foster care, and Bess’ vision to create an organization to assist foster parents and keep sibling groups together. That’s when we began to formulate a plan to make this vision a reality. I’m proud that Dana and I were founding board members. Dedication to the cause, for me and so many people, started as a commitment to help Bess achieve her vision. Now it’s blossomed into a passion for me, and so many other Board members, volunteers and community supporters.”

When he agreed to chair the first auction, Tom may not have known that this was a “permanent” assignment. This is the 21st Stepping Out for the Angels’ event, and Tom is proud to have served as chairman for all of these years.

“I have always enjoyed planning parties and social events—whether it was family gatherings, or as far back as social chairman for my fraternity in the early ’90s. Couple that with doing something that can generate dollars for a good cause, and it’s a win-win. It’s been a way to build strong friendships with many volunteers and donors.”

It started with a bike

Tom was actually a newcomer to the auction scene. “I had never planned an auction before, in fact, the first event was actually a fashion show, with the help of my wife, and then fellow board member, Colleen Stein. We hosted this at Greenbriar Country Club, with 85 guests in attendance. It was a nice dinner, followed by a fashion show. Someone contributed a bicycle, and at the close of the evening, I stood up to auction it off.” He raised $600 for that mountain bike—and the rest is history.

“The next year we held a fashion show, but we had a room where we hosted cocktails with about 25 baskets. The event has blossomed quite a bit since then, as we now have almost 200 items in our silent auction, and a substantial selection of live auction items.”

The auction goal: creating awareness

“The goal of the first auction was simply to create mindshare—share our vision and tell a story. We worked with local TV personality Katie Jamboretz, who acted as emcee. Later, Katie created a compelling video that was used to show potential donors what Angels’ Arms was all about.”

Unique themes, unique venues

Each year brings a new theme or concept—and with that comes new creative ideas to execute. Whether it was a massive blow-up planet earth at America’s Center, eye-catching jelly fish at Kemp Auto Museum, or French, Asian, or Italian flare and cuisine—each gala presented something fun and new. “We have hosted the event at five different venues, each with special experiences and fun times. The funniest, most poignant moments typically happen on the stage—whether it’s an exchange with Katie Jamboretz, Al Hrabosky, Dan McLaughlin, Kelly Jackson, or Heidi Glaus. There is bound to be a funny exchange with a foster child selling his or her artwork, or the auctioneer (Tom)—losing track of the live auction current bid.”

While many aspects of the gala remain the same, the importance and growth of sponsors have really propelled the gala forward. “Our loyal sponsors who have supported us for years, as well as new sponsors who are just learning about Angels’ Arms – these are the secret sauce to any event. You can have the most delicious dinner, an abundance of cocktails, and the perfect venue, but it’s the sponsorships and fund-a-need donations that truly fuel the engine and provide the support needed to keep our homes and families thriving.”

Tom’s goal now is to maintain a fun-filled, innovative event, that ultimately generates tremendous revenue for the Angels’ Arms mission. “What might have been a successful traditional dinner auction for two decades, might not be the perfect equation for the future. We don’t want things to be stale, so we evaluate after the event takes place.” Because of Covid, “the virtual event of 2020 actually created a unique way to view fundraising. Time will tell what the future holds for our donors and supporters.”

A Special Recipe – love for the mission

“We have an amazing group of supporters who truly understand the mission of our organization. Many attendees come back year after year, evangelizing the unique story of Angels’ Arms. That keeps this event alive and thriving. We have a special recipe for delivering a fun-filled event, along with a room full of individuals who care greatly for their community. In some way, everyone has a connection to the board and other volunteers – and most importantly, they have caring hearts to support the foster parents and the children in their care.”

And most importantly for Stepping Out for the Angels, we have Tom Hartnagel – master auctioneer and chair of our Gala, whose heart if all about the kids!

Foster Family

I see you, I hear you…thoughts and advice of a foster mom

Angels’ Arms foster parent, Lawreene Hall.

Peeling back the layers 

Lawreene’s advice for someone considering being a foster parent sounds simple: Be prepared for the unexpected. Plan, but be ready to pivot.“It is definitely going to test your patience, but it is going to be absolutely rewarding. The kids have been through so much. There are so many different levels of their trauma that you are going to deal with.

“It’s totally different from raising your own kids. I tell people all the time, I could not have done this while I was raising my sons. God knew that, and that’s why he didn’t put it on my heart at that time. It requires so much of you emotionally, physically – you are pulled in a lot of directions. But if you are called to do it, God is going to give you the grace to do it. 

“People might look and think, ‘Gosh, that’s easy,’ but they don’t see all the behind-the-scenes. You deal with everything you had with your biological kids, but with the addition of all the underlying trauma. A lot of that is peeled back in layers. All kids are complicated. You throw in the other things they have gone through, things they have not even shared with their caseworkers. Those things slowly come out the more they are comfortable with you, the more they feel like, ‘I belong, I’m part of a family, I feel safe.’ Then whole layers start coming off and they start sharing. Then you can really help them.”

Keep them together

Angels’ Arms’ goal of keeping sibling groups together is important to Lawreene. “I grew up in a large family with six kids. When I think about being torn away from them, I don’t know how I would be able to navigate and handle that. I would have been looking for my siblings. That’s why I like keeping sibling groups together. I have six boys, ages 6, 7, 11, 11, 12, 14, and that includes two sibling groups.”

One of the 11-year-olds has been with Lawreene since he entered foster care 3 years ago. His brother came about a year and a half ago because he was bouncing from house to house. “We got him stabilized and he was so happy to be with his brother. They really connect. Once he got here he could breathe a sigh of relief – there’s something familiar for me now.” 

Helping the parents

In the world of fostering, Angels’ Arms has made a tremendous, positive impact on Lawreene and her foster families. But what would she change if she could change foster care to make it better for the youth?

Lawreene believes providing resources for the biological parents of the children on a state level may be the best change that could be made. “Some funds should be allocated to the parents to try to help them get their kids back home, to reunify them. That would be a big help. Sometimes they are just stuck in a cycle. They are struggling, working minimum wage jobs. They are told they have to take a parenting class. But they need their job, and they can’t take this day off work to go to this parenting class. But they can’t get the kids back home without the class. But if they lose their job they still can’t get their kids back home. 

“Sometimes it’s something that simple that prevents the kids from going back home. Deep down, what the kids want is to be with their parents, or whatever family looks like for them. And there are times when this would be best for the kids and for their mental health. The parents feel like the whole system is against them. But our goal is to reunify families when it’s possible and healthy for the kids. Extra resources could make a big difference.”

I See You, I hear you

Lawreene is well aware that every child is unique, but she knows they all have one thing in common. “They all need to be seen. They all just want to be seen and heard. No matter what their trauma, if you just let them know, ‘I see you, I hear you, I’ve got you.’ Sometimes when they start opening up and talking to you, they are not looking for you to solve anything for them, they just want to know that you hear them. Finally, somebody sees me and hears me. You might not have a solution for me right now, but you hear me, you see me. That’s what’s common in all of them. I think that’s how I’ve been able to connect with all of them. I just let them know, I see you, I hear you.”

Saying goodbye

One thing Lawreene has learned is that her foster kids won’t be with her forever. “My very first placement came to us in 2013, a sibling group that was with us four years. It was the hardest thing in the world when they moved back home. It was like a piece of me left with them. I learned from them.” 

And just as Lawreene learned from her first foster kids, she uses that knowledge to positively impact every child she touches. She’s a mom who knows that goodbye is sometimes the best answer, but she will ALWAYS see, hear and be there for her foster children.



Room in our home, room in our hearts … interview with an Angels’ Arms foster mom.

When you meet an Angels’ Arms foster parent, you begin to understand that these are very special people. People who love and care for children, and are willing to sacrifice more than you can imagine to give them the life they deserve.

One of our newer parents joined Angels’ Arms in the middle of the covid pandemic. After a year as an Angels’ Arms foster parent, we checked in with Lawreene Hall to learn more about her and what this past year has been like.

Room in our home, room in our hearts

Although Lawreene and her husband Will Hall joined Angels’ Arms as a foster parents in July 2021, they began fostering in 2013. Lawreene watched her own mother foster children for 18 years. It made a big impact on her, and she felt that “God placed it on my heart to become a foster mom. We had room in our home and our hearts.”

She watched former foster children return to her mother and say, “I don’t know where I would be if you didn’t course correct me. In the midst of fostering, they may not have understood or appreciated what was going on, but it made a difference that changed their lives.”

Lawreene’s three biological sons and Will’s son and daughter were grown and had homes of their own, which left them with “room in their home.” Now they care for six foster children, and they also enjoy nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another grandchild on the way. But even with their own children out of the house, the Hall’s realized that their 3-bedroom home and small backyard were not ideal for raising a big group of boys.

Much needed support

With Angels’ Arms, everything changed. Lawreene explained that at first, “the biggest change was our location, a totally different school district which we love. And more space. We now have four bedrooms, and a huge back yard. The boys having more outdoor space was just fantastic.”

But for Lawreene and her family, it’s the extras that come with being an Angels’ Arms home that makes a huge difference. “We are just able to do so much more for the boys. They definitely see and feel the difference. Something as simple as an extra bowl of cereal is huge. When you raise boys, they are always hungry. The word of the summer is ‘snack,’ and I constantly hear, ‘When is it time to eat again?’ The extra groceries and the gift cards – those are just a godsend.

“And there are so many other things, things I never thought about. We were going on a weekend trip, and Angels’ Arms supplied us with sunscreen, beach towels, life jackets, water shoes, everything the boys needed to have a special get-away. Not having to shop at a thrift store or look for hand-me-downs, that makes them feel good, too. It really ups their self-esteem. They can really blend in at school or wherever they go. Used clothes are great, but it feels good to get them brand new things sometimes, just like all the other kids they are with.”

Another real plus for Lawreene is the other Angels’ Arms parents. “I have a support system with Angels’ Arms, this core group of parents I can talk to. That extra support really helps.”

Navigating a year in covid

Lawreene didn’t know exactly what the future would hold when she came to Angels’ Arms last July in the middle of the pandemic. When the world shut down, Lawreene was still caring for six children. The resources that Angels’ Arms provided, from extra laptops and a printer to help with school work, were critical to helping the family get through the school year. “My hats go off to teachers. I couldn’t do it — but I had to do it for 2020. Covid was tough emotionally. You had the worry of keeping everyone healthy. I needed to stay healthy for them because they had underlying fears – ‘Miss Lawreene what will happen to us if you or Mr. Will get covid?’ That was extra stress for them.”

Homeschooling was difficult because the children are all at different levels. “They may be the same age, but they are not on the same playing field school wise. Imagine you are in kindergarten, and your first experience with school is on a zoom – that stinks. They needed the socialization with their peers. That was the roughest part of covid for us, and everyone was relieved when they got to go back to the classroom, even a few days a week.”

On the positive side, “2020 was a slow-down moment. We are always so go, go, go. We learned that things that we thought mattered, really didn’t matter. Things that we thought we couldn’t survive without were not as important as we thought. The health and safety of those around us was really the most important thing. I think God just told us to slow down. Breathe. Look up. I felt like the birds were chirping more. I wondered if they had always been there chirping in the morning. And it seemed like the grass was greener, the sun was brighter. I don’t know if it really was, or if we just slowed down and were able to see it and hear it for the first time.”


May is Foster Care Awareness Month

May is National Foster Care Awareness Month, a time to recognize foster parents, families, volunteers, mentors, and child welfare professionals who provide loving homes and resources to children and youth in foster care.

Did you know that close to 700 children enter the foster care system every day and currently there are more than 440,000 children and youth in foster care in the United States? We encourage you to find a way to get involved in their lives. Below are a few ways you too can support foster children in our community during National Foster Care Awareness month and beyond:

  • Donate for Give STL Day and help send our families to Trout Lodge this summer!
  • Volunteer to make and deliver a meal to a foster family. Give a family a night off from cooking.
  • Host a collection to support foster families. Help us re-stock the Angel Depot for our families.

For more ways to get involved, visit


Warehouse Name Revealed!

We are thrilled to reveal Marion’s Angel Depot as the official name of our donation and distribution center located in South St. Louis County. We hosted a dedication ceremony on March 12th to recognize Marion Bradford for her steadfast commitment to our organization over the last eighteen years.

Marion, aka Dumpster Diva, Garage Sale Queen, Junking Pro, immersed herself with the organization immediately after our first home was purchased (in 2003). She was the Volunteer and Workday Coordinator Extraordinaire while we tackled the very daunting project of transforming the first Angels’ Arms’ house into a child-friendly, family home. Ever since then, Marion has remained involved by supporting the organization financially and collecting specially-themed items for our auctions, scouring sales and shops for baskets, and spreading the word about our mission. Her commitment and compassion make her one of the best volunteers any organization could dream of.  In March 2021, we honored Marion’s steadfast commitment to our mission by dedicating our donation distribution center in her honor and naming it Marion’s Angel Depot.

“Angels’ Arms captured my heart from the moment I attended their fall event 18 years ago and heard their message, I knew I wanted to be involved with this wonderful organization.  Founder Bess Wilfong projects such warmth and passion for the Angels’ Arms mission and inspires me to this day.  Volunteering with Angels’ Arms allows me to use my passion for “junking” as I scour the county for decor and projects to upcycle for their auction and their foster homes.  I am also proud that Angels’ Arms recognizes and utilizes the unique talents of each volunteer.  The efforts of those who mow lawns, paint rooms, provide family meals, donate boxes of cereal, plan birthday parties, and a thousand other things to support Angels’ Arms is so important.” – Marion

Foster Family

A Day of Sunshine

I was a bit fatigued the day after receiving my 2nd COVID-19 vaccine. But it was a beautiful Saturday in February, and I know I wasn’t feeling nearly as tired or cruddy as one of our house moms who’s in the biggest battle for her life. She has breast cancer, her2 positive, which means it spreads quickly. Her treatment plan includes chemo that goes right through her—many times a day. Needless to say, she’s always tired and feels like the life has been zapped from her. 

Ramona, foster mother, and cancer fighter.

We all know people who battled cancer: some of them fought and lost and some fought and are still here, including me. But this is different. This single foster mom has 7 children living in the home. They’re all learning virtually. As a foster parent, you never know who you’ll get, what behaviors they’ll exhibit, and how long they’ll be with you.

This group of 7 kids is special. They are a family unit. They laugh, argue, clean, eat, and play together. Every single one of them has a happy disposition. Some of them are siblings. But if you didn’t know differently, you would think they’re one group of siblings.

I took all 7 of them to Forest Park Saturday so mom could rest and just have a bit of downtime. What a tremendous blessing this turned out to be. When I arrived at their home, they were waiting by the door. Each one of them had one of the specially-themed denim quilts made just for them in their arms.

Exploring the beauty of Forest Park.

The gratitude they exhibited was completely unexpected. “Thank you for taking us to this really cool park.” “Thank you for setting up this picnic for us.” “Thank you for taking time from your weekend to be with 7 kids.”

We walked in creeks, walked some trails, played Zombie Tag (I was “it” most of the time since I’m a slow runner), but even then, they came to my rescue and allowed me to catch them. We had a picnic lunch with everyone sprawled out on their personalized blankets. Other kids even came to play with us and shared their kites and balls with them.

The kids loved having a picnic in Forest Park on their personalized quilts from DenimQuilts.

I can’t begin to tell you what this day did for my heart and my soul. It’s quite evident that these kids are experiencing what love is. They know what it means to be part of a family. They’ve learned what it means when someone has their back.

I talked with them about how hard it is to endure chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. I talked about the fatigue, the sick feeling, the metallic taste of almost all food, the inability to sleep due to frequent trips to the bathroom. I let them know that their foster mom’s cancer is treatable and has a very high success rate. Regardless of what the doctors say, it’s scary as hell, and each day in treatment (and after) brings its own challenges.

But all the while this beautiful mama manages to smile. In fact, her tears are tears of gratitude. She and her big family have been enveloped with more love than they know what to do with. They’re receiving delicious meals from supporters, from Pink Ribbon Girls, and from Angels’ Arms. One dedicated supporter redid her bedroom to make it more of a tranquil place. Others have assisted with laundry, cleaning, building another room for storage…the list goes on.

Ramona excited about her donated meals from Pink Ribbon Girls and volunteers building out a laundry room in her home.

Ramona’s new bedding and decor thanks to long-time volunteer, Linda Robben.

The kindness Ramona is experiencing is the sunshine that’s attempting to take over the always-looming clouds.

At the end of the day, I brought the kids home. They each went in to say hello to their “mom” and let her know how much fun they had. Then I went in to tell this mama how full my heart was. When you get outside of yourself and spend time with kids whose parents have died, given up parental rights, abused and neglected them, it certainly diminishes your “problems” and gives your existence a new perspective.

A selfie to remember this fun day!

We’re here to help each other. It takes more than a village. It takes one big-ass village.

Bess Wilfong
Executive Director and Founder
Angels’ Arms

Happy New Year!

Thank you for all the LOVE in 2020!

Thank you for being our support system this year. We leaned on you during the most challenging times and you came through for our foster families with your donations, meals and grocery deliveries, gifts for our kids, your time and so much more.

Our 20th anniversary year has come to an end, but we have big goals for 2021, which include expanding our reach to provide resources to even more foster families in the community.

We love having you as a part of the Angels’ Arms family and we wish you a happy and healthy New Year!

All our best,
Angels’ Arms Staff and Board of Directors
Check out a special message of thanks from our Board of Directors