School brings holiday cheer to some special families
By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- More than anything, Angela Little wanted Christmas to be merry for her family this year. Nothing fancy, just a few gifts and a nice turkey dinner, the kind of holiday her children deserve.
But because the single mother of four has been out of work since last spring when she was injured on her job, she feared Christmas would be bleak and that her children would be disappointed.
Everything changed when her son de'Vontae, a fourth-grader at Rio Vista Elementary, brought a note home from school saying the family had been selected to receive a holiday gift basket filled with canned goods, toys and a Publix gift certificate.
For Ms. Little, it was the answer to a prayer. She thought about surprising her children, but was too excited about the windfall to keep it to herself. She picked up the gift basket Tuesday and invited her mother and sisters to share Christmas dinner with them.
Ms. Little's family is one of 33 that received gift baskets this year from the school. The families have at least two things in common, said guidance counselor Godfrey Watson, who oversees the project. All are in need of holiday cheer, and all are important to the staff and PTA at Rio Vista.
The school's tradition of caring for needy families at Christmas time goes back at least 20 years, Watson said. Things get under way in early December when he asks the teachers to make lists of children whose families they suspect could use some extra help for the holidays.
Students are encouraged to bring canned goods to fill the baskets. The PTA contributes money for the gift certificates and shops for the toys. The teachers assemble the baskets and greet the families when they pick them up. Godfrey delivers baskets to the families who are unable to come to the school.
This year, the baskets contained some extra holiday cheer. Jim's Harley Davidson in St. Petersburg contributed $1,500, which raised the amount of the gift certificates from $30 to $50. The company also donated two bicycles.
Coming up with names is never difficult, Watson said. Almost two-thirds of the school's population qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. About one-fourth of the families speak English as a second language. Many parents, like Ms. Little, struggle year round to make ends meet and have an especially difficult time at the holidays.
The need seems to be greater each year, Watson said. Narrowing the list to the resources the school has available has become increasingly difficult.
"The families seemed much more appreciative this year," he said. "It seems like a lot of families are having hard times. There were so many tears."
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