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Fostering joy for the holidays

EAST MANATEE -- Kenny Tom had no idea where his grandparents were taking him and his siblings Friday night, but when he walked into the Carlos E. Haile Middle School cafeteria, the only word he could say was “awesome!”

“It was a shocker,” the 12-year-old Palma Sola Elementary fifth grader said later. “I thought maybe it was a donation to the poor. I thought I was helping out.”

The cafeteria was transformed into a holiday extravaganza. Tom was greeted by Santa’s elves, snowmen, ornaments and even a Christmas tree singing carols. Christmas presents were stacked on a pseudo fireplace to the ceiling, and Santa Claus was seated center stage eager to listen to children’s Christmas wishes.

Everywhere he looked rows and rows of red and green decorated tables were filled with holiday games and crafts.

The Manatee County Technology Student Association put together the holiday party as a community service project, said Janet Kerley, principal for Haile Middle School.

“We’re teaching the kids it’s important to reach outside themselves; to reach out to the community,” she said.

TSA representatives invited children and families from the Manatee Children’s Services program Grandparents as Parents (Caring Kin.) Grandparents as Parents is a program where grandparents or other family members take in children who would otherwise be put into the foster care system, according to Michelle Burroughs, kinship coordinator for the program.

“It’s grandparents, aunts and uncles raising kids,” she said.

About 23 families and about 100 children from the program attended the holiday party, according to Pamela Platt, a technology teacher at Haile Middle School, and coordinator for the party. With other community organizations already donating to needy children, the TSA thought this particular group of families and children needed a little holiday cheer.

“We found that the foster care kids don’t seem to get much attention,” she said.

TSA District President and Lakewood Ranch student Eugene Helfrick said the party was “much needed” in the community.

“Foster children tend to be the ones lost in the holiday shuffle,” he said. “They’re the ones that need support this time of year.”

Each school’s TSA program designed a game or activity for the children attending the party. A child could build a birdhouse, paint a race car, make an ornament or get their face painted, all courtesy of the TSA.

Omari Simmons, 4, and Jayden Simmons, 5, were busy pounding nails into the frame of their bean bag toss game when the party started. Too busy even to notice dozens of students dressed in costume handing out candy.

But they had smiles on their faces just the same.

“When you see the kids happy, it touches your heart,” said Doretha Simmons, guardian for the children for the past two years. “The kids are overjoyed. That’s what it’s all about.”

Following games and crafts, families were treated to a spaghetti dinner, compliments of the Haile Middle School cafeteria staff. Desserts were donated by student’s parents.

Before going home, foster parents were given a $30 gift card and a personal gift. The foster children got a variety of Christmas gifts and books, chosen from their own wish list and donated by each school’s students, parents, teachers and staff.

Everyone involved in the holiday party “overwhelmingly gave,” ensuring the party’s success, said Platt.

“Every single family will get something,” she said. “They will not leave empty handed.”

Burroughs was overwhelmed with the generosity of the TSA and everyone involved. It makes such a difference for the children and their caregivers,” she said.

“It just makes it extra special for them when they’re not able to be with their parents,” said Burroughs. “They get to create new memories around the holidays. It’s really neat.”