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'Like a river,' holiday gifts flow from couple to needy kids

Every year, Jim and Susi Quinn go out and pick toys for children who, without the Quinns' gift, might have gotten nothing for Christmas.

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
Published December 11, 2005


EAST LAKE - On a sunny winter afternoon, a visitor to the Quinns' dining room table might feel like the guest of honor at a fantasy tea party.

Batman stands alongside Barbie, both in their boxes near Mr. Teddy, serene in his God Bless America rocking chair. Goofy is in attendance, and so is Minnie and a koala bear. Pink and white unicorns snuggle with a litter of orange kittens and baby lions.

The 120 stuffed creatures and toys that inhabit Jim and Susi Quinn's dining room, handpicked over several months, will soon find new homes with children who might have otherwise received nothing for Christmas.

"Some people want to help the whole world, but you can only do a little part," said Jim Quinn, 62. "Children are innocent victims of their circumstances."

For 15 years, Susi Quinn has selected gifts from her motorized wheelchair, steering down shopping aisles with coupons and a smile that belies her physical lot.

Quinn, 64, got polio when she was 18. She hasn't walked since.

Jim Quinn, too, is disabled. He raises a pant leg and taps a prosthetic shin painted red, white and blue. He lost both legs at knee-level during a friendly-fire rocket attack in Vietnam in 1966. To show his patriotism, Jim Quinn insisted his replacement limbs have stars and stripes.

Jim Quinn said he uses his own birthday money to help buy the gifts.

"Don't say that," warned Susi Quinn. "Your mother will get upset."

They shop at KB Toys, TJ Maxx, Toys "R" Us.

"Beall's. She goes everywhere," Jim Quinn said.

" "That's where my Social Security goes toward,' " Susi Quinn joked, pretending to be her husband.

This week, the Quinns will make their annual drive to the Good Samaritan Mission in Balm with plastic bags full of stuffed animals and soccer balls. They also give about 50 gifts to the Church of God in Ruskin.

"It's not only toys for the children," said Dora Cruz of Good Samaritan, a Christian ministry that helps poor farm worker families in southern Hillsborough County. "They donate their love. And friendship. It's like a river! It's like a river flowing from them."

About 1,500 children have registered for toys this Christmas at the mission, but until recently, it looked like most would leave empty-handed, said Cruz, 74. Maybe tsunami and hurricane relief efforts had emptied the pockets of regular donors.

A recent Times article o n the charity shortage has since spurred enough people to donate gift certificates and money to cover the cost of presents. But even if the donations hadn't come, at least they could count on the Quinns, said Cruz, who has become good friends with Susi Quinn. Cruz's husband, William, is pastor at Good Samaritan Mission.

"She calls and says, "Dora! You want to know how many stuffed animals we already have?' " Cruz said.

Their friendship started 15 years ago during a cold spell in Central Florida. Susi Quinn, then a Clearwater resident, was watching a TV news broadcast that showed how migrant farm workers and their families were suffering. Many lived in trailers and cars, some with broken windows, most with no heat. The broadcast showed a station wagon packed with shivering young children.

"And that got to me. That really got to me," Susi Quinn said.

She tracked down the Good Samaritan Mission, which gives counseling, food and social services to the farm workers, many of them from Mexico.

Susi Quinn collected blankets, pillows and diapers with help from her neighbors. She worried and fussed at all hours, making donation calls and agonizing over strangers.

Her husband was concerned, too. Jim thought Susi was taking the goodwill to unhealthy heights.

"She had been too . . . what's the word for it?" he said. "Involved. Emotionally involved. It was an imbalance, it really was. After a couple years, it calmed down. She found a happy balance between helping on the outside and taking care of her family."

At the time, their teenage son, Adam, played the bagpipe at Dunedin High School. Jim Quinn was a computer programmer after a decadelong teaching career at Clearwater and Countryside high schools.

Susi Quinn taught adult art education and decided she could do more.

Maryann Velasquez was an 8-year-old when she first met the Quinns in 1990. Her aunt and uncle lived in a small house on the mission grounds, and when Susi Quinn started stopping by, that's when Velasquez started getting school supplies, clothing and art lessons.

"The first day we met her, we got close to her and she got close to us," said Velasquez, now 23, of Wimauma. "My mom and aunt didn't always have money to buy us things for Christmas, and Susi and Jim were always there to help with what they could."

The Quinns couldn't afford to give anything too expensive, Velasquez said.

But every birthday, for years afterward, she would receive a card that sometimes had a five-dollar bill tucked inside. Same with her two brothers and three cousins.

Now Velasquez has an 8-year-old son, Jimmy, who gets all the attention.

Cruz said the couple's devotion is inspirational.

"I do remember that from the first time on, it's always been the same Susi and Jim," Cruz said. "They've never changed. Days go by, and Jim and Susi are the same earth angels."

This year, on the Wednesday and Thursday before Christmas, children will line up at the mission playground for their turn inside a small building where the stuffed animals and soccer balls await.

The Quinns, who are both retired, have never watched the holiday revelry, always dropping off their shopping bags a couple of weeks in advance.

But when the couple arrives, Susi Quinn said the kids are always fascinated with her motorized wheelchair.

They beg for rides at 5 mph, and she usually obliges, letting them ride near the steering handle where a scooter brand name is printed in block letters: Amigo.

[Last modified December 11, 2005, 02:15:36]


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