Wendy Esquibel started her journey as a foster mom about 13 years ago. Not long after, she decided to expand her license to become a caregiver for children with special medical needs.

The decision changed the course of her life when she was asked to become a foster mother for a 9-year-old named Jose, diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

He showed up on her doorstep on a December morning wearing a red hoodie, boxer shorts and shoes that didn’t fit. “It was cold and he was embarrassed,” Esquibel recalls.

Jose was the first child with a medical condition Esquibel fostered after expanding her license. At the time she was told he was in remission and that, other than having to stick to his medication schedule, fostering him would be very similar to other foster experiences she had in the past.

The day following his arrival, the pair went to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for a checkup to update Jose’s blood work and refill prescriptions. But what was supposed to have been a routine visit resulted in unexpected and devastating news.

“Within hours of being there they (the hospital) were like ‘Well, here’s the thing: He’s not in remission. He has active leukemia,’” Esquibel said.

In the days and months after the discovery, Esquibel spent long hours by Jose’s side as he underwent in-patient procedures, doing what she could to help him adhere to the recommendations made by doctors while raising eight other kids — three foster kids, plus three biological and two adoptive children.

Meanwhile, efforts made to save Jose’s life included a successful bone marrow transplant from his biological sister.

“He just valiantly battled,” Esquibel recalls. “Everything they asked him to do he did.”

By August 2007, however, Jose’s health was failing. Not long after turning 10, he was moved into a hospice care facility in Glendale so that his biological family could visit him.

Despite living in Queen Creek, Esquibel made the drive to the Glendale facility daily to spend the entirety of her day with Jose. Then at night she would drive back to her home in Queen Creek.

She continued to make the drive until he passed in November of that year.

His death left her devastated. “For months, I just couldn’t figure it out,” Esquibel said. “I couldn’t figure out how to be able to get back into foster care and be OK.”

In addition to coping with the pain of losing Jose, Esquibel was also trying to piece together a way to keep a promise she made to him the night he died.

She recalls near the end of the night that Jose started to tear up, and remembers asking him what was wrong. He told her he was disappointed about how much he was going to miss out on in life.

“He was like ‘I’m a kid, and I’m not going to have children, I’m not going to have a job, I’m not going to go to school,’” she said.

What he said next has remained with her more than a decade later.

Jose told her that he believed people were going to forget him after he died. It was then he asked Esquibel to make him a promise. “He was like, ‘Promise me that you won’t let me be forgotten,’” she said.

“It was such a fork in the road for my life because at that time I was thinking that I was being the savior of the world, I was taking (care of) a couple of foster kiddos,” she said. “(But) I wasn’t giving until it hurt.”

After his passing, Esquibel debated organizing a fundraiser to support research into pediatric cancer. But the aftermath of Jose’s death and the memories associated with it made the idea too painful — so painful, in fact, that she would not find the strength to return to Phoenix Children’s Hospital for the next six years.

“Every call that came for a medical kid, I’d always say ‘Where are they?’” she said. “And if they said Phoenix Children’s Hospital, I’d say ‘Uh-uh. Not going.’ I stayed away from there for a long time.”

About four months after Jose’s death, a deacon of Esquibel’s church encouraged her to find an outlet for her grief. Knowing that she had to do something to help herself heal, and also keep her promise to Jose, she says she thought and prayed fervently on the issue.

Then, one day, inspiration hit. While thinking back on the first time she met Jose, she remembered how he had appeared on her doorstep with only a hoodie and a pair of boxer shorts. Realization struck, and she wondered, “What about clothing?”

“What you have to remember is that over 10 years ago there was nobody out there,” Esquibel said. “There wasn’t Helen’s Hope Chest — there wasn’t anybody. I mean, when you went to go pick up a foster kid... you just picked the kiddo up and went home. There (were) no resources and there was no help. So that’s why (Jose) came to me half-dressed.”

From there the idea for Jose’s Closet was born.

Esquibel started running an informal operation out of her garage, collecting clothing from close friends whose children no longer needed them.

Within a few months, her garage overflowed with labeled tubs of clothing for every season for girls and boys of nearly every age.

The closet quickly outgrew her garage — prompting Esquibel to move the operation to a storage unit, which rapidly transformed into 11 storage units. However, the expansion came with unforeseen challenges.

The location, she said, was less than ideal. The storage containers were not climate controlled, there were no restrooms and children had no safe places to play while they visited.

Those challenges came to a head two years later as word about Jose’s Closet continued to spread. As the organization’s popularity increased, Esquibel and a few of her girlfriends who helped run the organization moved Jose’s Closet to Thunder Mountain Middle School in Apache Junction, which was being leased by the Apache Junction Unified School District following the school’s closure.

The location was a step up compared to the parking lot of a storage facility, but still the move wasn’t ideal, particularly because the outdoor access to the classrooms made it somewhat hazardous for small children to be running around.

Thunder Mountain proved to be an impermanent home after AJUSD sold the property in 2016, leading Jose’s Closet to move to its currently location at Superstition Mountain Elementary School on Ironwood and Broadway.

“Every move has been better,” Esquibel said. “We’re now in an indoor facility where all the rooms are indoors so little people can run up and down the hallway... and we have teens that do family meetings there.”

Not only is the organization a place where foster families can access resources they may need, but Jose’s Closet has also become a safe space for many foster children and their families, she noted.

Today, Jose’s Closet serves thousands of children across Arizona, providing things they might need to feel at ease in their new home like clothing, shoes, toys and books. The organization offers necessities for babies and young children as well.

Though the nonprofit started with a goal of assisting foster children, for Esquibel the mission extends to serving foster families as cohesive units. The idea, she said, is to give foster children a sense of normalcy.

“If you go to a place that just serves foster kids — not that they’re not amazing, they’re great at what they do — but I feel like it again says to the child ‘you’re different. This isn’t you’re real family. You stick out.’ And I don’t want that message to go through,” she said. “When those families walk through my door, that’s a family unit for a day, a year, 10 years — that’s a unit right there.”

For that reason, Jose’s Closet strives to service everyone in the family, whether it be mom, dad, foster child or even a biological child.

Another important piece of Jose’s mission is to walk alongside foster children as they grow to ensure they get what they need to be successful as they enter adulthood, Esquibel said. The goal translated into bumping the age range the nonprofit services from up to age 18 to up to age 22. According to Esquibel, the ceiling will likely move to age 25 within the next couple of years.

And over the years the services that Jose’s Closet provides have expanded.

In August 2019, Esquibel lost a foster daughter, Emma, who was diagnosed with quadriplegia as a result of shaken baby syndrome. As a tribute to Emma, Esquibel started a food pantry within Jose’s called Emma’s Eats.

The pantry enables the foundation to go one step beyond providing clothing. Families turning to Jose’s for assistance can now also receive food, personal care items and cleaning supplies among other resources.

Since starting the pantry, Jose’s Closet has also worked to increase what it offers families as needs arise. Recently, that has come in the form of giving out one food box per child each month.

The pandemic has presented special challenges for many children that rely on meals served at school as their primary source of nutrition, prompting Jose’s to seek innovative ways to serve local foster families and children during difficult times despite donations being down approximately 63%.

For Esquibel and her organization, that meant making the decision not to close the doors — even at the start of the pandemic. Though the shop was closed to public access, Jose’s found a way to get families the assistance they needed by offering contactless pickup.

That requires the primary three individuals who operate Jose’s to invest hours into collecting and bagging up specified items and making up tailored food boxes that account for any allergies or food sensitives a child might have.

Amid a school year heavily reliant on remote learning, some of the nonprofit’s focus shifted from providing clothing to giving out take-home activities and food.

The idea behind take-home activities, Esquibel said, is to help foster children weather the pandemic emotionally, while the food distribution is intended to help them feel less doubtful about when they are going to get their next meal — especially when panic shopping dramatically reduced availability of many goods in grocery stores.

Constant discussion of the inability to find items like bread, toilet paper and other necessities resulted in some children exhibiting behaviors often associated with food insecurity, Esquibel said, such as hoarding.

“To them and the trauma brain, that sounded like food insecurity again,” she said. “So we had kids back putting food under their pillow and under their beds. And what we wanted to say to these kids was ‘Come to Jose’s, we’ve got you.’”

Beyond trying to provide a sense of security for foster children during wildly uncertain times, Jose’s also sought ways to stand behind foster families amid the pandemic and its subsequent economic effects.

“Anytime there’s a crisis of this magnitude that we’ve never seen before, we are expecting children to take the brunt of this,” Esquibel said. “As people are losing jobs and (struggling with) the stress and strain of losing housing, the abuse rates are going up — which means foster homes that are already existing are getting more packed.”

As more is asked of foster parents during these unprecedented times, Jose’s aims to offer any support and assistance it can.

Esquibel noted that like many parents who have started foundations to honor a child’s memory, she works long hours to keep Jose’s Closet open and available to children who need it. Though she oversees the organization, Esquibel doesn’t get paid for the work she does with Jose’s and still maintains a full-time job.

The organization only employs one person, and relies mostly on dedicated volunteers and board members to keep it fully operational.

“Honestly, in my life the most important thing I’ve done was starting Jose’s Closet,” Esquibel said. Despite running into hurdles in the years since starting the foundation that have included struggling to find funding and, at times, retain board members, she said that thinking of Jose has enabled her to never give up.

Jose’s Closet is located at 550 S. Ironwood Drive in Apache Junction and can be reached at info@josescloset.org. PW