The music pounds through the speakers, the DJ doing his best to turn the giant all-purpose room into a party room at the First United Methodist Church in Mesa.
Nearly 400 kids are here. Their ages range from 6 to 17, but they all have a commonality – they are foster children living in group homes, there to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal on this Monday night because they likely would not otherwise.
Michael Bankston is there too. Bankston works at Canyon State Academy, a school in Queen Creek with a mission to help at-risk children develop into productive adults. Bankston even knows some of these kids. But he is here because he once played for the Cardinals, and beyond the music and the food and the raffle prizes, it is the presence of Bankston and his fellow Cardinals alumni – along with some cheerleaders and the mascot, Big Red – that draw the most attention.
“You hope if you can just take them away for a moment, this is a fun time,” Bankston said. “People are showing love. And this is something (the alumni) love doing.”
It is the seventh year the dinner has been held. It flourishes through help from many volunteers. Carolyn Blaney-Arndt, helps co-chair this event. She noted it comes together only with the donations of three different churches -- First Church of Mesa, Dayspring and Desert Foothills UMC -- along with Ahwatukee Kiwanis and private donations. Phoenix Children's Hospital also has some volunteers.
“Kids that were in group homes didn’t necessarily get a Thanksgiving dinner,” she said. “We said we can give them one.”
Among the volunteers -- including Blaney-Arndt -- are CASAs. If CASA sounds familiar – the acronym stands for Court Appointed Special Advocate – the Cardinals certainly have a history. Christine Arians, the wife of former coach Bruce Arians, was a high-profile CASA during her time in Arizona.
The ex-Cardinals sit down to create autograph tables, and the lines grow. On one side there is Bankston, and one-time tackle Anthony Clement and wide receiver MarTay Jenkins, who once held the NFL record for kickoff return yards in 2000. On the other side, sits Ring of Honor wide receiver Roy Green, and ex-tackle Brandon Keith and tight end Ben Patrick, who caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
But there are more that autographs here. There are interactions. Opportunities, however brief, to interact.
Many of these kids have lived through what Bankston calls “ACEs” – Adverse Childhood Experiences. Parents might be in jail or on drugs. Some sort of abuse, whether it be mental, physical or sexual, is prevalent.
“Building relationships is huge,” Bankston said. “A lot of times these kids don’t trust anybody because of their past.
“You put a lot of time and energy in showing the kids there is a different way, but their triggers are all different. It can be tough to bridge the gap and break down those walls.”
At one point, Jenkins gets on the microphone, helping to energize the crowd. The alumni stand on a stage at the front of the room at the beginning, watching a handful of kids no older than 7 or 8 display their dancing skills. There's really no better time to watch them whip and nae nae.
Bankston gives a hug to one teen he knows well, before they take a selfie. He gives good-natured grief to yet another who dares wear a Raiders jacket in front of so many ex-Cardinals.
In the din of the organized chaos, smiles are everywhere.
“We all have something to be thankful for,” Bankston said. “They still have something to be thankful for.”
A handful of Cardinals alumni highlight the seventh annual CASA Thanksgiving dinner for kids in foster group homes, held at First United Methodist Church Mesa