RICHMOND -- Seven-year-old Skyler Howard-Perez loves watching "Animal Planet" and playing sports. He also loves to answer questions directed at his 11-year-old sister.
"She likes lanyard," Skyler chirps, so quick to answer that the question to Layoni about what she likes isn't even finished being asked. "She weaves stuff with it all the time." Layoni shrugs with a bashful smile.
"I'm so proud but relieved too," says Brenda Perez, the siblings' grandmother. "These are great kids with a bright future, and it could have turned out much different."
Perez, 57, is serving her second tour of duty as a mom, raising the two children with the help of the Youth Service Bureau in Richmond, one of the agencies that benefits from the annual Share the Spirit campaign. The bureau runs the Kinship Support Services Program, which helps relatives, usually grandparents, raise children whose biological parents have abandoned them, are incarcerated or dead, or have been deemed unfit to serve as guardians by California Department of Child Support Services.
The bureau offers group therapy, parenting classes, outings for caregivers and children, independent living skills classes and monthly get-togethers for the children, all designed to help keep kids with family members rather than in foster care.
The small staff serves 130 caregivers of about 200 children in West Contra Costa County, most in Richmond, said Youth Service Bureau Clinical Director Onna Alexander.
This year's program budget was about $230,000, with $200,000 of that from the county and the rest from grants and donations, Alexander said.
"Our budget has been dipping a bit every year," Alexander said. "We do a lot with a little."
The program runs an office at 241 26th St. in Richmond, where Perez brings her kids at least once a week.
On a late November afternoon, Perez reflected on the past few years as the kids busily assembled toy skyscrapers and other odd shapes using a magnetic construction kit, one of many games at the center.
"There was a lot of doubt, sure, I wondered if I could do this again," Perez said of adopting the kids. Skyler was just a baby when child welfare workers removed him and his sister from the custody of Perez's daughter and the kids' father.
"Drugs were involved, and it was a very unsafe environment," Perez said.
Already on a fixed income -- Perez suffers from debilitating arthritis -- the mother of four and grandmother faced the challenge of raising two small children.
"In some ways, I am a better mother now, wiser, more patient, and I have more time," Perez said. "But in terms of my energy and my finances, it's a struggle."
But with the support of the staff and other caregivers in the program, Perez said she has been able to provide the children a better opportunity.
"The program opens up all kinds of things that I couldn't do myself," Perez said. "Girl Scouts, camping, going to A's and Giants games and playing sports and activities, after-school tutoring. It's like I have a whole team to help me."
Layoni is on the sixth grade honor roll, and second-grader Skyler is so sharp he can calculate his grandmother's age by her birth year in a few seconds.
The kids are brimming with excitement about the coming Christmas party, Perez says. This year's party will be held at Hometown Buffet in Pinole on Dec. 8. Santa is scheduled to drop in.
It's also a talent showcase, including song productions and poetry readings by the kids.
Both the kids have their Christmas lists updated for Santa.
"They still believe," Perez whispers.
The Share the Spirit campaign, sponsored by this newspaper, benefits nonprofit agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. To help, clip the coupon accompanying this story or go to https://volunteer.truist.com/vccc/donate. Readers with questions and corporations interested in making large contributions may contact the Volunteer Center of the East Bay, which administers the fund, at 925-472-5760.