As the Christmas season rapidly approaches, one doesn’t have to look very far to see need and despair. However, one doesn’t have to look too far the other way to find love, compassion and the willingness of others to help.

Several individuals, groups and organizations in Suwannee County stand ready to ensure that Christmas for hundreds of children within our own community will be special and not just another day on the 2011 calendar.

These are just a sampling of those organizations.

The Santa Shop

Through the Santa Shop, the Suwannee County School District’s Students in Transition Program for homeless children assists many children within our community.

“Last year, through efforts of the entire community, the Santa Shop provided gifts to over 200 students in the students in transition program in Suwannee County Schools,” Suwannee County School District Parent Liaison Lisa Garrison said.

Through the work of those involved, a store is created and that store is called the Santa Shop. It is filled with gifts and toys. The parents or caregivers of the identified students in transition are then invited. There are 192 students at this time who are considered in transition.

According to Garrison, when the parents arrive, they are given two or three tickets per child to shop. The number of tickets depends on the amount of donations received.

“Parents are provided with wrapping paper to finish the presents,” Garrison explained. “This way, parents are able to take ownership in giving to their children and they are so appreciative of

all that the Santa Shop gives.”

According to Garrison, all of the remaining Santa Shop's toys and gifts are donated to the Toys for Sparky's Kids drive after the Santa Shop’s giveaway is complete to help the Live Oak Fire Department provide for the many families they assist.

“With all of us pulling together, we can brighten the lives of many children in Suwannee County,” Garrison added.

Those wishing to donate toys or gifts to the Santa Shop can do so by dropping them off at any Live Oak school site, no later than Dec. 13. They are accepting gifts for children ages four to 18.

For more information, please contact Debra at 386-647-4606, Melanie at 386-647-4628 or Lisa at 386-647-4623.

Toys for Kids +

For 15 years, Roger Burnside of the Branford area has poured his heart into helping children in the Branford, McAlpin and O’Brien communities have better Christmases.

“Along with a group of volunteers, we are able to help many children in this area,” Burnside explained. “Because the donations come from this community, we are able to provide to this community.”

The Toys for Kids + project, which Burnside founded and operates out of his home, provides toys and clothes for the children that might not otherwise have a memorable Christmas. Last year alone, the project was able to help over 100 needy children.

Burnside asks that anyone who knows of a child in need to call him at 386-935-3343. From that point, he and his group of volunteers assist the families.

In order to provide assistance, Burnside still needs donations and stresses no donation is too small and all will be greatly appreciated.

According to Burnside, there have been requests this year for food, blankets and shoes. Anyone wishing to donate to Toys for Kids + may do so by leaving them at Branford Town Hall, O’Brien Feed and Hardware store or at 25241 SR 247 in O’Brien.

Toys for Sparky’s Kids

The Live Oak Fire Department’s Toys for Sparky’s Kids program is well underway, according to LOFD Safety and Training Officer Alan Bedenbaugh.

“We received seven or eight calls just today from people already calling to sign up,” Bedenbaugh said recently.

The program is a toy drive for children ages 0-12, according to Bedenbaugh, and sign-ups for giveaways began Nov. 28. Cutoff to get your name on the list is Dec. 12.

Giveaway is Dec. 21 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the LOFD.

“Last year, we served 548 kids,” Bedenbaugh explained. “This project has been successful through the help of local businesses and organizations who donate toys to the program.”

Bedenbaugh encourages anyone wishing to donate to deliver the toys to the LOFD or call him at 386-362-1313 for more information.

“Times are tough out there,” Bedenbaugh said. “We want to help every parent we can give their child a better Christmas than they otherwise might have.”

Elizabeth Starling

One local woman’s annual quest to donate toys for the Toys for Sparky’s Kids program has become a tradition in Live Oak. Elizabeth Starling, who works at the Jiffy Food Store at the corner of North Ohio Avenue and Duval Street, is in her fifth year of contributing to the Live Oak Fire Department’s program.

“We began a few weeks ago,” Starling said of her efforts.

Raffle tickets are sold exclusively at the store for one dollar each. Starling then purchases toys with the money collected from the raffle tickets and donates the toys to the Sparky’s program at the LOFD.

“We will have several drawings,” Starling said. “These drawings are made possible through donations. So far, we have a TracFone with 400 minutes, Avon gift baskets and a digital camera and we will even have more as time goes on.”

According to Starling, the drawings will be held Dec. 22 at Jiffy Food Store. The store supervisor will draw the winning tickets and Starling will contact the winners.

“You do not have to be present to win,” Starling said.

Suwannee County Sheriff’s Posse

In addition to responding to the needs of the Sheriff’s Office and other agencies in emergency situations, the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Posse extends their assistance to those in need within the community. This year, as in years past, the Sheriff’s Posse will distribute Christmas gift baskets.

“We do several things each year,” Deputy Jr. Smith said. “We’ve donated Christmas shoeboxes and collected toys for the LOFD, but our main project is the Christmas gift baskets.”

According to Smith, different churches and organizations submit names of individuals and families in need to the Sheriff’s Posse. The Sheriff’s Posse then makes and distributes the gift baskets on Christmas Eve. The baskets each contain a Christmas meal.

The Sheriff’s Posse will distribute about 25 family baskets and 15 individual baskets this year, according to Smith.

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