BRADENTON -- Parents working two or three jobs to pay the bills and worried about the Christmas season, will get a little lift from the Manatee County School District and some of its elves.
Residents of the Waterlefe Golf and River Club will make sure 79 needy Manatee County schoolchildren have Christmas gifts. The Cedar Hammock Fire Department will deliver gifts to 11 children.
The eighth annual edition of The Giving Tree project in the Manatee County School District will ensure roughly 600 children have at least one gift to open during the holiday season.
"What we take for granted, they really need," said Kami Lake, a social worker at Bayshore Elementary School who organized the event. Lake has worked at the school for 19 years and this is her eighth year organizing The Giving Project.
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In additions to supporters such as Waterlefe, the project also includes two "Angel Trees," including one at the downtown district office. This year, a second tree at the school support center will help Lake increase the number of students served up from 300 last year.
"That's the biggest it's ever
been. It's crazy," Lake said. "People can pick as many as they like from the tree."
In the fall, social workers, guidance counselors and school psychologists identify families and students who qualify for the program. Lake said most families included are the "working poor," not necessarily those completely out of work. They are families where the adults may work two or three jobs to pay the bills, but can't come up with the extra money for gifts at the holidays.
"That's the situation with a lot of our families," she said.
Children in the families write down three things they want and one thing they need. Wants include footballs, bikes, Barbies, anything related to the movie "Frozen," and needs are often socks, shoes and clothes. Certain "wants" are eliminated right off the bat, Lake said, adding video games consoles don't make it to the tree.
Lake said lists vary depending on a child's age and interests. Each year, Lake said she's always able to make sure every child has something.
"I never say no and I always find a way," she said. "If you ask, people will give."
Tags with the child's name, age, wants and needs are displayed on the tree for people to pull down and purchase gifts. Gifts are due Dec. 14 to Lake and delivered the final week of school before a two-week holiday break. It wouldn't be possible without the help of volunteers, Lake said.
"We have an army of elves," she said.
Janet Stepp, a 69-year-old retiree living in Waterlefe Golf and River Club, enlisted in the volunteer army and helps coordinate the yearly effort. More than 70 people in the community adopt 79 children, she said.
Waterlefe's contribution began as outreach from women in a book club before Stepp lived in the community, she said. It's evolved to include those from all areas of the gated community.
"There's so many people out there living hand-to-mouth," Stepp said. "A lot of people are oblivious to this."
Stepp, a retired administrative assistant, said she's lived a blessed life and this program gives her an opportunity to help bless others. Community members like the program because they know the families getting the gifts are verified as needy. It allows the neighbors to shop for toys for children -- as many of their own are already grown.
"The people in the community, they act like I've done them a favor," she said.
A father of two himself, Cedar Hammock Fire Department fire inspector Marc Massella said he would be devastated if he couldn't provide toys for his children during the holidays. That's part of the reason the fire department adopts families each year from the school district.
When the department finishes having members bring in donations, Massella and a couple others will go out and shop. He's hoping he'll be able to get a bike donated, but he's also planning to buy clothes, shoes, and a guitar for one of the children.
"We want the kids to have a smile on their face that morning, even if we can't see it," he said. "That's all that matters."
For more information about the program, or to buy a gift for a child before Dec. 14, contact Kami Lake at 941-751-7000, ext. 2081.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.