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Volunteer uses passion, personality to help foster kids

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Tom Vooris, right, laughs with Dominique Carter, a foster child, while playing corn hole during a fundraiser at Tavern 99 in Atlanta for the Foster Children's Foundation.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Tom Vooris, right, laughs with Dominique Carter, a foster child, while playing corn hole during a fundraiser at Tavern 99 in Atlanta for the Foster Children's Foundation.

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Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Tom Vooris loves helping kids, and turned that passion into a full-time volunteer position after some financial good fortune allowed him to step away from the mortgage industry.

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Special Photo Vooris has been known to play the Easter bunny and even Santa Claus during holiday events for foster children.

SUWANEE -- When Tom Vooris tells the story of dressing up as an Easter bunny, he giggles as much as the kids he's trying to entertain.

He talks about walking blindly because of the oversized bunny head. Vooris reminds himself that, not being able to talk, he needs to overstate his gestures. The kicker, though, is at the end of the event when he's trying to change out of the costume when a young child sees him from across a parking lot.

Vooris makes a split-second decision to duck behind a Dumpster so as not to confuse or cause horror to the child with a bunny suit without the head. Luckily, he was quick enough on his feet to avoid any embarrassment.

That's simply the kind of guy Vooris, 49, is around almost any group, but especially any event for the Foster Children's Foundation like the Easter egg hunt at Roger's Bridge Park in Duluth.

Dominique Carter, who led Vooris around that day, only laughs when asked to describe Vooris' personality. Wearing a Foster shirt, Carter said when he arrived on the scene, Vooris scooped him up.

"That's the first time I've ever been picked up by the Easter bunny," Carter said.

Vooris, a Lawrenceville resident, treats times like these as his full-time job as a volunteer for the Foster Children's Foundation. He's volunteered since 2003, but transitioned to a position on the organization's Board of Directors, and about two years ago made it full-time. In 2010, Vooris experienced a "life-changing financial situation" when he walked away from his job as a loan officer in the mortgage industry.

Vooris' title with the organization is "adult donations," and he's active in groups like the Suwanee Business Alliance, and often attends luncheons and board meetings to meet new people and talk about foster kids.

"That's our future. If we don't help these kids, who's going to," Vooris said. "If you like kids, you've got to care."

Vooris' wife, Laura, and Suzanne Geske, the executive director of the foundation, said there isn't a better match of personality and position, especially for a volunteer, than Vooris and his responsibility of building relationships, and raising money and awareness for what the foundation does.

Carter, who Vooris calls his hero, is a success story in the eyes of Vooris. Carter became a foster child as a teenager, but now is a student at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Yet Carter said Vooris' personality shines through from the first moment he sees him.

"It's almost instantaneous, as soon as he opens his mouth," Carter said. "His personality can take over a room. I've never seen him with a plain look on his face. He's like a big kid. He's this high-energy guy, and very passionate about what he's doing."

Carter said Vooris and his position within the foundation are a "perfect match, a perfect mold," and said foster kids, because of their life experiences, can often sniff out someone who's not genuine. Carter said "we develop a sixth sense about who's trying to help us." But to Carter, Vooris passes every test.

"Ultimately, I think it's him just being fully vested," Carter said. "It's not a PR thing."

To show how serious Vooris is about getting donations, he recalled a conversation he recently had with a women's group. The group had organized an event, and began to brainstorm about fundraising ideas. So Vooris offered to run around in a pair of high heels, and then rattled off dollar amounts to wear a skirt, bra or makeup.

"I don't care. I don't have a problem embarrassing myself," Vooris said. "If it's going to help out the children, that's fine."

When Vooris grew up in the Clearwater-St. Petersburg parts of Florida, he said his family was like something on television or in a movie. His friends often called his parents Mom and Dad, and holiday meals were full of family, friends and neighbors. Vooris and his sister sometimes joked that they had some of their friends because of their parents.

That's the root of Vooris' affection for kids.

"I attribute a lot of it to my Mom and Dad and having the family value to have this passion for it," he said. "These kids don't have a family, and I was blessed to have that."

Vooris extends that to his own kids, 11-year-old triplets, who attend events and are beginning to understand the significance of the organization.

"If he could take in 10 foster kids, he would," his wife, Laura, said. "That's the kind of family we are -- close knit."

When Vooris' financial fortune arrived, it couldn't have come at a better time for his career and health.

Working in the mortage industry, Vooris saw his volunteer time with the foundation cut back when his business felt the effects of the downturn in 2007. The time away gnawed at him.

"It didn't mean I had any less caring for those foster kids," he said. "I cried, because I couldn't do it."

To make matters worse, serious stomach pain came, and Vooris visited several doctors and medical specialists who performed a list of tests and procedures. But for a month and a half, Vooris was on his couch and couldn't walk. At one specialist's office, he needed a wheelchair to even make it from the parking lot to the building.

"I looked at him and told him to quit (his job)," Laura said. "I'd rather have him around."

A month after he found the medicine to eliminate the stomach pain, his life changed financially.

The decision to not work was an easy one, he said, and he doesn't have any regrets.

"I paid my dues," he said. "I don't feel bad that I don't have to work a real job."

One of his first steps after he walked away from mortgages was to Geske.

"I'm back," he said. "What do you need?"What he gave the foundation was a passion for the cause and smiles for kids.

"He's educating the public about these kids' needs," Geske said. "People can't make a difference until they know there's a problem."

The current priority for Vooris and Geske is to find a resource center that has 3,000 to 5,000 square feet of donated space. The foundation hasn't had a resource center in several months, and has used storage buildings and garages to store items like toiletries, clothes and school supplies.

"These kids," Vooris said, "without getting help, through life's lessons, are going to be your next round of burglars, murders and rapists. It's a scary thing."

That's why he attends the events, and wears the bunny suits, Vooris said. And when people ask what he does for a living, his volunteer position at the Foster Children's Foundation is his answer.

"This is it," he said. "I don't get paid a dime, but the rewards are priceless."