Foster children ‘Jump on the Bus’ to celebrate special Christmas Day

Despite a drizzly Christmas day, David Butler’s spirits were extraordinarily merry and bright.

Butler, 21, who has lived in foster care since he was 12, found joy Monday with more than 120 other youths living in Central Florida group homes or temporary shelter as they spent the day together, many laughing all the way.

They rode in tour buses to the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center to visit the annual ICE Experience, featuring the theme of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” then to Kings Orlando on I-Drive to bowl, play games and feast on chicken fingers and tater tots, then to ride the rollercoaster and bumper cars at Fun Spot America.

Butler skipped the butt-chilling ice slide at Gaylord Palms but his smile twinkled like a tree topper anyway.

“I got to spend Christmas with someone that I know and that’s all that matters,” he said.

With family often the focus of Christmas, holidays can be especially lonely for foster kids separated from loved ones, said Penny Jones, a foster mom who started the annual outing now known as “Jump On the Bus” about 10 years ago.

“This is now our Christmas tradition,” she said.

Taj Banks, a foster kid on the inaugural outing in 2013, served as a chaperone Monday. “When you’re in foster care, you think a lot about not having a family,” said Banks, now 29. “This gives us the opportunity to be with people who are like our families.”

He wore a “Merry Grinchmas” sweater.

Everything was free for the youths, donated by the venues.

“We’re a place for celebrating all kinds of occasions, but none better than this,” explained Rob Brown, a Kings Entertainment manager, who wore a Christmas sweater featuring the face of Ted Lasso character Dani Rojas in a Santa cap.

Many young adults in foster care leave the system at age 18 but some qualify to stay longer, up to age 22.

“It’s really nice to be with people who understand you and your circumstances and to also see them be happy and able to escape whatever’s at home, good or bad, even for a day,” said Icesis Jones, 14, who was in foster care then adopted by Penny Jones.

Some also receive gifts from toy drives, but said they prefer moments like Monday that felt like family time.

Those sentiments brightened the hearts of volunteers, too.

“I just love being able to spend my Christmas day in service of others,” said Prita Chhabra, who works with Embrace Families, a child-welfare agency that manages adoption and foster care in Central Florida. “What better service than helping them have the best Christmas they possibly can, given the circumstances, which are no fault of their own.”