Celebrating in comfort

Metropolitan Ministries provides a living room for those without one.

By JUSTIN GEORGE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 26, 2007

TAMPA - Stace Sanders woke up Christmas morning at 5:45. She laid out a white blouse, black velvet skirt and some open-toed heels for her daughter, who was still asleep.

Sanders was determined to give her a normal Christmas, even if that required props and a set, which it would.

"I try to raise her 100 percent to the best of my ability," Sanders said later. "Even here, I try to make the best of it for her."

She soon woke 11-year-old Justice, who got her name when she kicked her mother in the womb after someone uttered that word. Since then, it's been just the two of them - a single mother and daughter doing their best through hard times.

Stace, 34, has a college degree in audio and digital engineering but has struggled to hold down jobs while raising a child. She worked part time in child care and for the Girl Scouts, but had to give up her car when money ran short. That led to more downsizing, and eventually to the dorm room she and her daughter have shared at the downtown Metropolitan Ministries shelter for the past eight months.

They sleep in a bunk bed, with her daughter on top. When Justice woke up Christmas morning, she wanted to open a present. Sanders let her unwrap the one she bought for her.

It was a three-photo frame with pictures of her friends, a cousin and herself in it.

The rest of the presents, her mother said, were upstairs. Stace fixed her braids and put on lipstick, a black jacket and white skirt. She pinned a poinsettia to her lapel, and mother and daughter climbed the stairs until they came upon a hall of temporary cubicles.

Makeshift walls had been erected to create six similar living rooms, each with couches and Christmas trees like furniture showrooms.

Sanders and Justice were directed to Room F. They peered into the other rooms as they walked, seeing family after family smiling among a heap of presents.

In their room, the pair saw a fireplace painted on plywood and an unfinished particle board mantle holding plastic garland and painted pine combs. Fake cranberries clung to the tree and synthetic wreaths hung on the wall. Brand new nutcracker candleholders stood on a shelf below a wooden picture frame of a woman holding a dog. The picture was a display photo that came with the frame, which still held a price tag.

All of the items had been donated by OSI Restaurant Partners Inc., which owns Outback Steakhouse and other chains. The presents under the tree came from private donors and groups that had been given the wish lists of families living in the shelter.

There were volunteers and workers all around the halls hauling presents into each room and hauling ripped wrapping paper out like a busy restaurant wait staff.

For a half-hour or longer, the room was the private living room these families couldn't afford.

"It's nice to have some place to celebrate Christmas," Sanders said. "Being that I didn't have my own place and my own tree ... I don't have the words to say. ... It's beautiful."

She sat on the couch while her daughter tore into presents. There were two Hannah Montana CDs, a Snoopy book, a paintbrush set, a pink ceramic hair flatiron, in-line skates and a rectangular box bigger than her.

She pulled open the top and exclaimed, "I got a guitar!"

"I want to know what color it is," Justice said, "if it's black or red."

"Pull it out," her mother said. "Lay it down. Be careful."

"It's white," Justice said. "It's white. It's white!"

As her daughter strummed her new gift, Sanders opened gift bags addressed to her. She had received some body creams, a nighttime sleep mask and a locket.

She opened the locket. It had just enough room for two pictures and no more.

Justin George can be reached at 813 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.