MANATEE -- Two mothers who lived through the nightmare of having a child incarcerated started Not Alone Ministries seven years ago to deliver Easter baskets to the children of inmates.
Fortunately, the children of Lee Hardy and Linda Butler got their lives back on track after their jail time. But the annual Easter basket project has remained a passion for the two, and they have been delivering an ever-growing number of baskets to under-privileged children every year.
Thursday, they delivered 500 baskets to four childcare centers in Bradenton and Palmetto. Each of the baskets was put together by Lee Hardy in her home, and stored there until time to be delivered.
“I thought I was the only mother with a child who was locked up,” Butler said, recalling how alone she felt before the ministry was started.
But Hardy came to her side and helped her cope.
“We helped each other and our children are now OK,” Hardy said.
They realized that too many children -- whether their parents are in jail or simply having a tough time making ends meet -- may go without an Easter basket.
The women started modestly that first year, putting together 100 baskets -- garbage bags actually: pink for girls and blue for boys.
Then they recruited a variety of sponsors, from Wal-Mart and Amscot to local law enforcement agencies, Westside Funeral Home and more.
“With the economy the way it is, we don’t turn anyone away,” Butler said.
Their reward is seeing the wide-eyed look of surprise and delight on the faces of children when they get their baskets.
“The kids are so innocent. Whatever you put in their hands, they say ‘wow,’” Butler said.
Diana Williams, assistant director at A+ Growing Academy in Palmetto, called the 163 baskets delivered to her facility a blessing.
“A lot of our families are living paycheck to paycheck, and some children wouldn’t get a basket,” Williams said
At Excel Academy for Children in Bradenton, director Leshia Murrell said she was overwhelmed by the delivery of 108 baskets.
“We have so many parents who couldn’t afford to give baskets this year,” Murrell said. “This is a beautiful thing.”
While the baskets delivered to A+, Little Vicki Day Care and Imagination Situation were traditional baskets with a combination of a lot of little things, ranging from candy to games and toothbrushes and toothpaste, the ones delivered to Excel were a bit different. The baskets were toy firefighter helmets supplied by the North River Fire District, which had been turned upside down and filled with goodies.
One of the students at Excel will undergo open-heart surgery soon, and Murrell said she knew the boy’s family would have been unable to get him a basket.
”Oh my goodness, this is a blessing,” she said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.