PARRISH -- There may be no better symbol of community spirit at The Gardens than a 4-foot-11 spark plug named Mary Smith.
Smith, 87, has perfected the art of persuasion in the manufactured home community of 1,100 at 11300 U.S. 301.
Through her leadership, residents have contributed more than 40,000 pounds of food to local food banks, 168 bicycles to the homeless, 200 care packages to America's men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, hundreds of backpacks and toys for needy children, and much more.
Those packages to troops in combat zones are a true community effort. In addition to snacks and comfort items, each box also includes a letter from a Williams Elementary School student. One year, Gardens residents also packed an American flag made with student handprints in red, white and blue paint.
Park owner Ed Mihevic picks up the cost of postage.
Smith retired to The Gardens from North Carolina 17 years ago, but "retirement" is really not in her vocabulary.
"My doctor says that whatever I am doing, I should keep doing it," she said.
Essentially, it boils down to encouraging neighbors to open their wallets and hearts to help others less fortunate.
The spirit of generosity is shared by many at the The Gardens, who receive no compensation for their good works other than knowing they have helped make life a little easier for someone else.
Sandy Copley has made and donated 987 lap robes -- well on the way to her goal of 1,000.
Margaret Ann Guild also crochets lap robes despite being legally blind. Before she lost most of her vision, she made up to 35 lap robes a year, but still manages 10 to 20 annually.
Mike Korsch, another resident of The Gardens, delivers food for Meals on Wheels to 150 persons in Palmetto each week. At Christmas time, residents prepare gift packages, including a lap robe, for each of the meal recipients on Korsch's route.
Dick Courtemanche, editor of the Garden Gazette, a monthly newsletter published by the Palm Lake Social Club at The Gardens, says the spirit of sharing shows itself in other ways, too.
"It really gives me peace of mind living in The Gardens. I feel that if anything happened to me, my wife would be taken care of. It's a family," Courtemanche said.
Roger Fournier agreed.
"It's a beautiful park and we have lots of amenities. But it's an extended family. The people here take care of each other," Fournier said.
Resident John Butterwick stays active with Southeastern Guide Dogs, and The Gardens singing and golf programs, but says nothing is more meaningful to him than the annual Memorial Day program.
Each Memorial Day, there is a guest speaker and a Veterans of Foreign War color guard. During the ceremony, veterans from the neighborhood are recognized. When a vet dies, a cross is added in his or her name to The Gardens Memorial Day display on a lawn near the community center. At last count, there were 103 crosses.
On Thanksgiving, there is a free community meal at The Gardens. Each resident who participates brings a covered dish to share. Mary Smith also insists they bring a nonperishable food item, which last Thanksgiving produced a donation of 440 pounds of food for the Manatee Food Bank.
"As you can tell, everything revolves around Mary," said resident Bill Turner, a retired U.S. Marine Corp. sergeant major. "She doesn't embarrass anyone. She pushes for the donations with a sense of humor."
Isaac Yates, a retired single, calls himself a "romeo."
"Do you know what a 'romeo' is?" he asked. "Retired old men eating out."
The Gardens is friendly to romeos, too, he said.
"People welcomed me when I moved here. When you drive down the streets, everyone waves at you. When you come here, you're safe. That means a lot, even to men," Yates said.
What attracts a person to any neighborhood? That can be difficult to define. Sometimes they just know when they arrive.
Courtemanche said he and his wife visited as many as 75 Florida neighborhoods before stopping at The Gardens.
"The minute we pulled onto Palm Boulevard, we looked at each other and said: 'This is the place.' It was as simple as that," Courtemanche said.
What did it for Margaret Guzman, one of the younger residents of The Gardens, was the active lifestyle with roller bladers, joggers and cyclists on the streets.
"Can we keep up with people 20 years our senior?" she asked.
The answer to that question is 'probably yes,' unless the neighbor happens to be Mary Smith.
"When I moved in, there was hardly anyone on this street. We were all in the same boat, new to the area. One thing led to another," Smith said of how she went from playing bridge to wrangling help for the needy.
"You can't be a loner and live here. There is so much to do," she said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.