MANATEE — The niños — the children — came forward eagerly, their elders more cautiously.
But come forward they did at the Whisenant Farms labor camp near Parrish and in several neighborhoods of Palmetto where the population is heavily farmworker.
Members of New Beginnings Church in Palmetto spent their Christmas sharing hundreds of new toys with the children and hot food, and staples, such as rice and beans, with the adults.
There was no preaching, just an exchange of “Merry Christmas,” “Feliz Navidad,” “God bless you,” and “thank you,” between church member and farmworker.
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“I have been blessed myself and I feel like everyone else should be blessed, too,” said Melissa Bruscce, a church members who took part in Thursday’s outreach.
Judi Catignola said the program allows her church to have contact with a segment of the population that it wouldn’t otherwise.
And that the blessings on a day like Thursday are really a two-way street.
“We have an opportunity to let our children know how blessed they are and to eliminate the selfishness,” Judi Catignola said.
Her husband, Mark, pastor of New Beginnings, said his church has been in Palmetto more than 40 years, and that demographics have changed in that time.
“We realized that Palmetto had a huge farmworker population. We looked around the neighborhood to see what the needs are,” said Mark Catignola.
At a gang task force meeting, he met Esperanza Gamboa, coordinator for the school district’s farmworker education program, and gained a valuable ally.
“She said, ‘If you have stuff, we have people,’” Mark Cotignola recalled.
The first “stuff” the church had to share was blankets and food with 60 families that had neither. That was in February of 2006. Thus was born an outreach to a part of the population that is often described as living in the “shadows.”
The Cotignolas were joined by their two daughters, Andrea, 9, and Camryn, 7, in distributing gifts.
Too often people get caught up in Christmastime materialism, Judi Cotignola said, and forget that others may live crammed into one room with nothing.
Damari Delgado, 12, who lives at the Whisnant camp, said she appreciates what the church does.
“It’s really good,” she said, “because some people really need the help.”
Alex Bruscce, 14, was one of three siblings helping his mother during the Christmas outreach.
He said his favorite part of the day is seeing the appreciative looks on the faces of those that New Beginnings have been able to help.