Local church giving away 4,000 Christmas toys today

MANATEE -- A church situated near the border of Manatee and Sarasota counties is giving away 4,000 toys and clothing from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today to children who otherwise wouldn’t have any Christmas.

Crossroads United Methodist Church, whose mission is extreme community outreach, last year supplied Christmas gifts, clothes, school supplies and water to more than 300 children and families during its first Hope For Christmas event.

More than 1,000 children and their families are expected today for the free event, which will also include hot dogs, chips, soft drinks and photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus, said The Rev. Bob Suter of Crossroads.

The church is located about a a half-mile south of University Parkway on the east side of U.S. Highway 41 at 4726 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota.

Since a case of an adult getting toys and reselling them surfaced last year, children must now be present and accompanied by an adult.

Adults are asked to register at the church moments before the children are welcome to run into the sanctuary to pick out age-appropriate gifts, from age two to 16, Suter said.

Besides the toy and clothing donations and photos, carnival games, crafts, face painting and other activities that primarily are geared to children age two to eight are scheduled from noon to 1 p.m. today,

For Lesley Pinckney, who lives in the area, the program was blessing last Christmas and will be this year, she said.

“My two children, Imari, who is 11 and Isaiah, two, wouldn’t have had any toys last Christmas even though I was working because I was making barely above minimum wage,” Pinckney said.

Families with situations similar to Pinckney’s are the focus of this program, Suter said.

“We are very active in everything we can involving the neighborhood here, which includes Bayou Oaks,” Suter said. “We concentrate on making sure we give at least one toy to each child who comes here. We don’t wrap them.”

But Suter said the church will welcome any family from anywhere.

“We are trying to let the people know we love them,” Suter said. “If we run out of toys, we will take names and, last year, I personally delivered a few toys.”

As part of its outreach, Crossroads hopes to inspire the arts in its community. An event called Carrefour Cafe, which is French for Crossroads Cafe, is held at 7 p.m. the first Sunday of every month.

It features live poetry readings, dancing, live music, painting and any other arts people would like to bring, Suter said.

A cafe bursting with artists is quite a reversal for this facility.

Before it was Crossroads, this house of worship was called North United Methodist Church and it was fading.

It finally closed in June, 2006, and Suter was asked by church hierarchy to leave his post at Venice-Nokomis United Methodist Church and revive North United.

“We changed the name to Crossroads and started knocking on doors in the neighborhood,” Suter said.

Church members, which stood at 37 when Suter came, has grown in four years 140.

These members have opened their hearts to homeless and needy families from the area, Suter said.

The church also has praise band practice on Thursday nights and the homeless and drifters on 14th Street W. often just come in to hear the music and sit for awhile.

The church has helped take 200 families off the streets since 2006, Suter said.

“We are all about trying to help,” Suter said. “I am a big advocate that we need to stop handing out food. We need to build relationships to find out what the real problems are. Sometimes people are afraid to do that. Food doesn’t solve the root problems. We try to ask the right questions and, sometimes, we have to stretch as they start to answer the questions.”

The first Christmas “Hope” event in 2007 was not toys, but free work boots and clothing.

Working with area motel and apartment owners and others, the church has helped families get roofs over their head, Suter said.

“We even have a mattress store that will supply a bed to a child within eight hours if that child is sleeping on the floor,” Suter added.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.