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    Single father, four kids touched by kindness

    Dozens have donated money and gifts to help out during the holidays.

    By MONIQUE FIELDS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


    CLEARWATER -- Nearly $2,000 sits in Ricky Caldwell's bank account. Donated gifts are piled high under an artificial Christmas tree sparsely decorated with red satin-like bulbs. Outside, his battered truck will soon receive much-needed repairs.

    Caldwell, a single father of four children ages 5 and younger, has had trouble providing for his family. He lives at Religious Community Service's Grace House, an emergency shelter that provides a roof to needy families for eight weeks. After a story appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Dec. 4, dozens surprised him by donating money, gift certificates and gifts to help him survive the holiday season.

    Some only asked to see his children. Others requested a hug. Most didn't bother to tell him their names.

    "I really wasn't expecting all of this," he said. "I still don't expect anything, but I'm thankful."

    On Thursday, two departments at Wakely & Associates Inc. in Clearwater donated $270 they usually use for a Christmas luncheon.

    "We're a department of all women," said Nicole Howard-Wade, a long-term care claims manager for the administrative actuary company. "Most of us have children and understand how difficult it is."

    Caldwell is among a growing segment of society in Pinellas County, those who don't make enough to take care of household needs.

    A landscaper, he works for $7.50 an hour, hardly enough to take care of his four children, who were thrust into his care after their mother disappeared from her bay area home. It's unclear why she left, but the case is being monitored by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office's child protection investigators, said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita.

    Caldwell is still in awe of all the help he has received. Three employers called Grace House with opportunities for employment, but none of them worked out.

    He donned a suit and tie and interviewed for an office position at a St. Petersburg law firm. But Caldwell who describes himself as mechanically inclined didn't think he was qualified to work with computers and other office equipment.

    One company offered him a place to stay as long as he worked for them. Another offered him housing until he got on his feet. But Caldwell was concerned about having his job so closely tied to his housing.

    "They can get mad at me and say you didn't do this or you didn't do that, and you're fired," he said. "I don't need to put my kids through that."

    For now, Caldwell, 37, has managed to keep his family together, but he still needs a home. His allotted time at Grace House was set to expire on Christmas Eve, but administrators there say he can stay until he finds somewhere else to live.

    In the meantime, Caldwell has taken time off work and is canvassing area neighborhoods for homes with "For Rent" signs staked in their yards. He figures he can afford a two-bedroom house that rents for about $500 a month.

    While residents have stepped forward to help, many of his needs can't be addressed with money alone.

    "He definitely needs to have some intense counseling and support services to help him adjust from this radical change in his roles," said Lisa Hughes, program director of Grace House. She and others are also concerned for the children's welfare and how they deal with their mother's absence.

    Caldwell admits that he has much work ahead of him, and said he could be in a house as early as Jan. 2.

    "My kids are thankful," he said, "and I'm thankful for my kids being happy."

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