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Salvation Army Toy Shop gives Manatee parents a hand with Christmas

MANATEE -- It has been a good year for Rosie Martinez.

After struggling through a long stretch of unemployment, the Bradenton single mother got a job as a dietary aide at a nursing home, allowing her to provide for the every-day needs of her children: 12-year-old Valentin, 9-year-old Bryanna and 6-year-old Esperanza.

But Christmas is not like every other day -- at least Martinez doesn’t want it to be.

“For them, Christmas is every day I get paid,” she said.

That’s why Martinez showed up Monday with about 1,100 other needy families at the Salvation Army’s annual Toy Shop to accept gifts donated by Manatee County residents who put the holiday’s spirit of giving into action.

Like most parents, Martinez wants her children to go bug-eyed with delight Christmas morning. But she said the only gifts they have ever received were donated by her mother’s church or something small she picked up at Family Dollar.

“I’ve never had presents to give my kids,” Martinez said after volunteers loaded her car with games and athletic equipment at the Army’s Center for Worship and Service on 24th Street East.

“I thought I’d come and apply and see if something will work. I didn’t even have a Christmas tree this year.”

The Salvation Army handed out gifts to parents of 2,500 children Monday. Anonymous donors chose the wish lists of children from the Salvation Army’s Angel Trees and purchased the gifts, which the organization distributed.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., 69 volunteers guided a steady stream of parents -- kids were scarce to protect the true identity of Santa Claus -- into a church gymnasium overfilled with clear plastic bags that contained everything from CD players to fishing poles to acoustic guitars.

The Salvation Army estimates each child received about $50 worth of presents, which means the equivalent of $125,000 worth of charity was distributed Monday. In October, applicants provided copies of their children’s birth certificates and proof of income to qualify for the program.

“Today is the payoff,” said Maj. Robert Parker, the Salvation Army’s Bradenton area coordinator. “It’s the day it’s fun to be a Santa’s elf. They’re all so wonderfully grateful. ... It’s a very friendly, warm atmosphere.”

Peggy Pinkham, an 82-year-old volunteer who manned the check-in desk, has been helping out at the Toy Shop for 10 years. She says the smiles and appreciation never get old.

“I’m helping the community, people that need it. I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Pinkham said.

Many parents said the gifts will turn a meager Christmas into one their children will remember.

Bradenton’s Christina Graessle stopped by to pick up presents for her girls, Desirae, Bridget and Allisa, who range in age from 8 to 11. Graessle works at Kmart, but her husband has been laid off from a lawn and tree care business for about two years.

“It’s stuff they like to do. They like the little arts and crafts things, and they love board games,” Graessle said.

“I make minimum wage, so we barely make our bills as it is. They’d only get a couple of things a piece if I didn’t have them (the Salvation Army) to help me out.”

Latoya Randall had just finished a shift at Checkers when she arrived to pick up a car full of gifts for her six children. It was a wide array of presents; the oldest child is 14, the youngest 2 months.

“It’s a big help. I’d probably be short on gifts. ... They’d have some, but not as much as they (the Salvation Army) give them,” she said.

Parker praised donors for meeting the community’s need. It took a final-week push to secure gifts for the final 200 angels.

“Wherever you see a need -- and in this case it’s young children without the joy of Christmas on Christmas morning -- you can respond to that,” Parker said. “And the only way we do that, really, is because of the generosity of the community. The community has provided every one of these toys. We’re just the way to get them to the kids.”

Timothy R. Wolfrum, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7015.