Firefighters help hard-pressed North River families

MANATEE -- Five deserving, but hard-pressed families, from Palmetto to Parrish received gifts of toys and food Friday, delivered by fire truck and ambulance crews.

North River firefighters collected the food, donated by the associates of Sweetbay at 515 Seventh St. W., Palmetto, at 7 a.m., and worked around emergencies the rest of the day to complete deliveries to families by 5 p.m.

The families were recommended by local schools based on need, said Battalion Chief Mike Williamson of the North River Fire Department.

Also pitching in were Manatee Emergency Medical Services and Manatee 911.

“This is the third year we’ve done this,” said Dan Fulghum of Sweetbay.

“It gets better every year. I am thrilled and honored to be part of it.”

Firefighters say they also feel the warm glow that comes with giving, some- times in unexpected ways.

Two years ago, Capt. Scott Smith said the department learned of a Palmetto family with young children that was unable to afford a Christmas tree.

He donated one that he found in the attic of a home into which he had recently moved.

Later, the family’s cir- cumstances improved, and the children asked if they could return the tree or donate it to another family, Smith said.

“Talk about the tug on the heart strings,” he said.

As they waited for their gifts to arrive this year, the Padgette family gath- ered in its living room to play a game of 20 questions.

Once they hit question nine the answer was at the front door -- the fire department.

“One of the clues was, ‘They’ve been here before,’ ” said Brittany Padgette, 17, adding her brother Brendan, 11, and sister Bethany, 15, were guessing family members and friends.

As soon as the fire rescue members and other emergency personnel walked in, the house had a Christmas morning feel.

Bethany and Brendan sat on the sofa and took turns opening their gifts.

Brendan went first as everyone stood watching.

“I like the skateboard,” he said.

Brendan also smiled when he opened various clothing items bearing the logo of his favorite sports team: the Florida Gators.

Next came Bethany’s turn.

She sat quietly in the corner of the sofa during the whole process, unsure if she wanted to open them straightaway or wait.

Eventually she opened them.

One of her favorite gifts was a sketch set.

“I like the drawing stuff,” she said.

Although Brittany helped her mom Michelle keep the secret from her sib- lings, she also got gifts. Her favorite: a Books-A-Million gift card.

“I’m obsessed with books,” she said, adding she’ll most likely be buying a Tim Tebow book with her money.

While the gifts were being open, emergency officials stood back and smiled.

“It’s very rewarding to help these families and to see them enjoying Christmas,” said Luke Kushto, firefighter for North River Fire Department.

He and others bought the gifts or gave monetary donations to buy them.

“We knew exactly what the kids wanted for Christmas and that’s what we got them,” Battalion Chief Michael Williamson said. “We got them their whole list.”

Williamson said he enjoys this event because it is a chance to give back.

“It’s a great feeling because our community supports us,” Williamson said. “It’s nice to give back to the community.”