MANATEE -- Twenty-four Christmas trees that were going to be donated to local needy families were stolen Sunday night from a lot near University Parkway.
But local companies have come to the rescue, donating enough to make sure those families will have their trees.
The original trees were from the Taylor's Trees program, the proceeds of which benefit the Taylor Emmons Scholarship Fund and the Payton Wright Foundation.
"The night before the last day, we had 31 trees left," said Katie Emmons, vice president of the Taylor Emmons Scholarship Fund. The fund-raiser started with 220 trees and wreaths. "We announced it on Facebook and Twitter."
The foundation immedi
ately received a call from Cornerstone Title pledging $1,000, and The Surfin' Plumbers offered an additional $500 and delivery services for all the trees.
But when Sandra Albano, executive director of the Taylor Emmons Foundation, arrived Monday morning at the tent inside the Cooper Creek Retail South Plaza, 8440 Cooper Creek Blvd., she was shocked by what she saw.
"I almost dropped my phone -- 24 of the 31 were missing," Albano said. "I told them (The Surfin' Plumbers) we would only need one trailer."
Holly Wright, vice president of the Payton Wright Foundation, had already called a local elementary school principal to say 31 families would receive Christmas trees.
"This was something special to have families have a nice tree for the holiday," Wright said. "It just broke our hearts."
So Tab Hunter, owner of The Surfin' Plumbers, bought an additional 25 trees from the Manatee Boys and Girls Club to replace those that were stolen.
"I had promised the money to the foundations, so I gave them that as a donation," Hunter said. "But what bothered me more was that families wouldn't get the trees."
Hunter and his staff delivered the trees to 32 families, many of whom do not have personal vehicles.
"I just wanted people to have trees," Hunter said. "You should see the expression on people's faces when you walk to their door and hand them a Christmas tree."
The Emmons and Wright families elected to not report the theft to police, explaining they don't have time to dwell on negative energy.
"In everything the Wrights and our family have been through in losing children, this is a minor thing," Emmons said. "We can only take a negative and make a positive."
Taylor Emmons, 19, was killed in 2010 when he was struck by a vehicle in Miami. In 2007, Payton Wright, 5, died after a battle with pediatric brain cancer. Each family has launched a non-profit organization in their children's memory.
"That is what's devastating," Wright said. "I'm hoping they (whomever took the trees) needed them or donated them. But look at what the companies did. That's the most special thing."
The families thanked the community for its support to ensure children would have a tree in their home on Christmas Day.
"This is what the holidays are about," Wright said. "I'm a mom. Little ones want to have a holiday season. To be able to help them and have special memories, it helps everyone."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.