tampabay.com

Norman Rockwell lives here

By SUSAN THURSTON
Published December 9, 2005


On Davis Islands, Santa Claus knows kids' favorite ice cream. Firefighters follow his sleigh, and elves drive a white convertible Mercedes.

The children give toys instead of receive them. Adults sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

It's all part of the community's annual Christmas Toy Drive.

Sisters Jeanne Lavettre and Eileen Goldenberg organized the event to collect toys for needy kids. Their entourage hit the streets Tuesday night.

Now in its fourth year, the toy drive has become a neighborhood tradition. Neighbors plan block parties around Santa's arrival. Families shop for gifts. The spirit of Christmas overflows.

"This is quintessential Davis Islands," said Lisa Weiss, whose husband, Bob, and 6-year-old daughter, Ali, took part. "We've been standing around and playing and talking. It's just like the neighborhood when I grew up."

Kringle and company visited 15 Santa Stops set up across Davis Islands. Several had parties where neighbors caught up with neighbors and did all the stuff they wish they could do but seldom have the time.

At one house, kids roasted marshmallows in a fireplace pit. At another, they sang to Santa. At every stop, parents snapped photos.

Families went all out with Christmas decorations and food. The stew at Susan and Jim Andrews' party was a big hit. So was the gourmet flatbread pizza from Pane Rustica at an earlier stop. Parents clinked wine glasses as little girls in red dresses and white tights hugged Santa.

Watching the festivities was like stepping into a Norman Rockwell painting.

Lavettre got the idea from a Vanity Fair article that mentioned a neighborhood toy drive up North. She figured Davis Islands could do the same thing and recruited her sister, an artist, to make the sleigh.

Goldenberg, a fond friend of charitable artistic causes, jumped in with two bells. She's Jewish, but no matter. Everyone embraces joyful giving.

The sisters have beautiful memories of Santa, played by Java and Cream owner Dennis Cavanaugh, wowing children when he told them their favorite ice cream. And of the girl who skipped away after giving Santa a gift.

On Tuesday, Lavettre drove from stop to stop and fielded calls as Goldenberg manned the bullhorn, borrowed from Berkeley Prep. "Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Riviera!" she cheered as they wove through the streets of expensive homes. "Merry Christmas to all."

Goldenberg, who has lived on Davis Islands most of her life, yelled hello to friends as she passed their houses. Christmas music blared.

Lavettre, who owns the Serendipity gift store on Davis Boulevard, tried not to tear up when The Little Drummer Boy came on the radio. They laughed at the thought that pulling a trailer with Santa probably broke some law, but so what? It's all for a good cause.

Besides, the authorities were there. Three firefighters from local Station 17 joined the caravan, following Santa and his helper, Jesse Miller, in their firetruck.

After all the stops, Santa and his elves unloaded the booty at Goldenberg's house and sorted by age category until late into the night. Toys ranged from games to makeup sets and scooters, even a new bicycle.

Representatives from about 10 agencies, including the Joshua House and the Homeless Coalition, began arriving at 7 a.m. Wednesday to collect the estimated 1,000 gifts. Goldenberg had hoped for a few more but, in general, declared it a huge success.

Kids learned about giving. Parents learned about community.

The sisters encourage other neighborhoods to try the same. Last year, Virginia Park borrowed their sleigh for a toy drive and had great results. The drive was such a success that JulieAnne Parker and a team of more than 30 volunteers, including many Boy Scouts, made their own sleigh this year and on Monday gathered about 1,059 gifts.

Her kids loved it. Her neighbors' kids loved it.

And so will many children on Christmas Day.

THE LAST DROP: Anyone wishing to donate gifts to the Davis Islands Christmas Toy Drive can still do so by dropping off new, unwrapped toys to Serendipity or Java and Cream on Davis Boulevard.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com