BRADENTON -- A mother staying at a women's shelter to escape an abusive ex-boyfriend who shot at her was relieved to hear she didn't need to worry about Christmas presents for her two young children this year.
Monique, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, has been staying at the HOPE Family Services battered women's shelter with her toddlers for about a month and a half. Her ex-boyfriend, the father of her children, shot at her and her daughter while they were in a car. She went to the shelter with guidance from child protective services to escape him and to take some time to work and save money so she could move far away from his violence.
She was going to make sure her children got presents at Christmas no matter what, she said, but when the shelter told her they would have free gifts for her to choose from for both of her children, she was relieved.
"It means I can save my money to move into my own place. My ex is well-connected and violent, so I need to save all I can so I can get me and my children far away from here," Monique said. "I know they're too young to remember it, but I want them to know that we can all be happy without him."
It's a typical story for the women at the shelter, said Laurel Lynch, CEO of HOPE. That's why they organize a mini-mall of toys every year, where mothers with plenty of concerns can pick out free Christmas gifts for their children. The toy store helped 69 families and 297 children in 2014, handing out about 900 toys for children of all ages. They also hosted an "Embrace a Family" project that helped 20 families and 58 children.
"Think about being a victim of domestic violence -- your home is not safe, you're afraid of somebody, you've got so much on your plate to say grace over, and here come the holidays. Every movie you see on TV, there's Christmas carols and the snow is falling and it's just all lovely, and your family is in complete chaos," Lynch said. "We can just make some little sense of normal for these children and these moms every year."
The volunteers take the children to another room, where they can pick out small gifts like makeup, candles, lotions, scarves and purses for their moms. Then the mothers are free to pick out one large and two small gifts for each of their children, as well as a hand-quilted stocking with stocking stuffers and clothing. The shelter even provides wrapping paper and gift bags, so mothers don't have to worry about any additional expenses.
"They help you with everything here," Monique said.
Volunteers transformed two rooms filled with boxes of toys into the makeshift mall, sorting items and placing girl toys on one side and boy toys on another. Barbies, Frozen dolls, Star Wars action figures, skateboards, stuffed animals, clothes, jewelry, sports balls, toy cars and more filled every inch of the room.
Kathy Eckert, who has volunteered with HOPE for 10 years through the Ellenton-based volunteer group Angels at Work, said her favorite part is taking the children to the mom-gift room, where they get excited to pick out presents for their mother and younger siblings.
"They'll be picking something out for mom, then they'll see a stuffed animal and ask if they can have it for their sibling," Eckert said, smiling. "A lot of us are retired, so being with the younger kids, it's Christmas for us, too."
Donations come from all over. This year there were hundreds of private toy donations, 40 scarves kitted by hand, 60 stockings quilted by hand, $1,000 in gift cards and a $5,000 donation from It Works!, a Palmetto business. That donation will go toward buying gifts such as bicycles, iPods and other items more appropriate for teenagers and older children.
"You put all that together and it's just an amazing thing," Lynch said. "And it sends a non-direct message to the women and children who stay with us and receive services from us, 'Look, things are tough right now, but there's a whole community that cares about you.' It's pretty powerful stuff."
For mothers like Monique, it means a way to make their children, who have already been through a lot, feel normal as they work to make themselves and their families feel safe. Her son talked excitedly about wanting toys of his favorite superheroes, like the Hulk, Thor and Spiderman, while her daughter liked Minnie Mouse and Dora the Explorer.
"Last Christmas their father didn't buy them anything," Monique said. "We might not have our own space this year, but they're still going to have a Christmas."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter@KateIrby