A Florida couple who opened their 27,000-square-foot mansion in Boca Raton, Florida, to 70 foster children who had to evacuate during Hurricane Irma, says they have no plans to stop helping anytime soon.
“These kids needed us — and still do,” Jennifer Bell tells PEOPLE. “Even though the hurricane is over, these kids still live in a hurricane.”
When Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Jennifer and her husband, entrepreneur Marc Bell, received a call from SOS Children’s Villages letting them know that the kids — who are all orphans — had to leave their temporary shelter and sleep in cars. Marc, a former executive of Penthouse, is on the board of the children’s shelter.
“Without hesitation we said, ‘Bring them here, we’ll figure it out,’ ” says the mother of three. “They all came over and all they wanted was a shower. They hadn’t eaten and they were all very sleep-deprived.”
What was supposed to be a few-hour visit ended up turning into three days.
While most of the couple’s friends evacuated Florida ahead of the storm, the few who stuck around came over to help — and the one pizzeria that stayed open, delivered pizza.
The kids were scattered throughout the large 9-bedroom, 17-bathroom house and were kept entertained by arts and crafts and even a balloon artist hired by the couple for the younger children.
“We did birthdays for all of the kids because some had birthdays that week,” says Jennifer. “On the last night there was this one little boy [who had a birthday] and I said, ‘Make a wish.’ He pulled me down and he said, ‘I just want my mommy to come home.’ ”
After the children returned to SOS Children’s Villages, the couple continued to help by creating a GoFundMe page for them. And Jennifer also planned a fun surprise for the kids.
“The little girls wanted these Hello Kitty cars,” she says. “I told my girlfriends and none of them really responded to me. The hurricane was over, so I said, ‘Not only do I want you to buy one of these cars, I want you to all come with me to the village.’ ”
“It’s just a matter of getting people out of their bubble to look at other kids and see what they’re actually going through,” she adds.
On Saturday night, Jennifer and a few friends surprised the kids with their new toy cars.
“All of the sudden you see all of these young kids all coming out on the cars driving with such joy in their faces,” she says. “The surprise was amazing. We also dropped of a lot of Sesame Street stuff and books.”
And a few of her friends have already started to fill out their volunteering mentor forms so they can continue to help the organization as well.
“I think it made us smile more than it made the kids smile,” she says. “Anyone can write a check, but when you go the Village, you see it. It touched their hearts to see the kids so happy.”
Jennifer isn’t slowing down anytime soon. In the next week, she’s hosting an ice cream party at her house for the girls and a pool party because the children weren’t able to swim when they stayed at their house. She’s also gathering used Xboxes and Wii’s for the older children.
“What they want is for me to say, ‘I’m coming on Saturday,’ and I show up on Saturday. They want to see the faces that helped them during the hurricane come back, ” she says. “We’re not stopping. I’ve made it my mission to be there for them. We won’t give up on them.”