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Teen is selfless indeed

When this teenager gives a Christmas party, he asks guests to go all out - to help. His do-good tally so far is 650 gifts and $4,500.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


PEBBLE CREEK -- In many ways, Christopher Shelton is an average teenager. Loves basketball. Chatting with friends on the Web. Listening to music.

Cringes when his mother calls him "pumpkin" in front of guests.

And then there's this other side to him: Santa Claus in a 14-year-old's body.

In the past two years, Christopher has rallied his friends during the holiday season to collect about 650 gifts for sick and orphaned children and some $4,500 for charitable causes. He has held garage sales and gone door to door asking strangers to help the less fortunate.

Next week, the Wharton High freshman will be recognized by the local chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives with the organization's first "Youth in Philanthropy Award."

"He did something that was a selfless act," said Grant Martin, president of the local society. "He saw a need and said to himself, "I can do something about it.' "

Christopher's benevolent streak began in 1998 after he read a story about a local girl who had cancer and was afraid of being in the hospital during Christmas. It struck a chord with the young man with blond-tipped hair, who sees generosity as an outgrowth of his Christian faith.

"It was sad," he said. "I asked myself, "What am I doing for the community? Nothing.' "

So Christopher asked his mother what he could do. They decided to give a benefit Christmas party for all his friends at the clubhouse in Hunter's Green, where he lives.

Judi Roberts, patient advocate for the St. Joseph's Hospital of Tampa Foundation, remembers when she first heard about Christopher. It was two years ago, after receiving a call from the boy's mother, Elizabeth Shelton-Mekdeci.

"They were calling different places and he really wanted to help," said Roberts, who nominated Christopher for the award.

Roberts gave Christopher a list of gifts the hospital needed for children who were patients, including many who have life-threatening illnesses. It included items like baby rattles, action figures and board games.

Christopher's family, which pays for the parties, included the wish list in the invitation, asking each guest to bring a gift for hospitalized children. A seventh-grader at Benito Middle School at the time, Christopher told his friends about the party and made sure they didn't forget the gifts.

"They were like, "Oh, okay. No problem,' " he said. "But some were like, "Do I have to?' "

The party -- complete with music, games and Santa in a red suit -- was so successful that Roberts could barely fit the donated gifts in her sport utility vehicle.

"It was like 200 gifts," said Mrs. Shelton-Mekdeci. "It was unbelievable."

A second party was held last year, with gifts designated for Tampa Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's, and the Children's Home of Tampa. Hundreds more gifts poured in -- skateboards, fishing poles, an authentic pro football jersey.

Mrs. Shelton-Mekdeci is convinced that generosity comes naturally for her neighbors. "If you give them an outlet, they'll go way out," she said.

But Benito's principal believes the boy's giving spirit comes from his family.

"Christopher is just a wonderful person," said principal Lewis Brinson. "It's good to see young people being aware of the needs of others, sharing and giving, and not always looking at receiving."

Jody Glock of Pebble Creek said Christopher's generosity has spread to other teens, including her daughter Alexandra, who insisted that the family provide a gift for every age level provided on last year's wish list.

Some people may do good deeds, but "I don't think everyone takes it to the next level like Chris," Glock said.

Mrs. Shelton-Mekdeci said she noticed her son's giving spirit when the family lived in South America. At 6 years old, Christopher would often ask a woman who cleaned the family's home if she had enough food or a ride home. He would give her some of his allowance. "That's the first time I realized his depth," she said.

Christopher, who has two younger and two older siblings, is scheduling another Christmas party this year and hopes he can top the $2,100 he gathered last year.

He's also planning a more ambitious effort to help the hospital in the spring, but doesn't want to publicize the details because "it's not etched in stone."

He's not sure what will happen with his charitable work after he graduates from high school. He dreams of going to Harvard University and becoming a pediatrician.

He remembers visiting Tampa Children's Hospital last Christmas Eve, when some of the gifts were distributed. Sick children, some dragging IVs with them, filled the room. "They were so happy," he said.

And then he saw the little girl with cancer who had inspired it all. She was doing better. Her red hair had grown back.

He walked up to her and said hello. "I told her she was the one who made me do this," Christopher said.

Asked if he feels like Santa Claus, he rubbed his face and stomach. "Without a beard and a fat belly," he replied. "But, yeah."

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