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Readers deliver first-class effort for ‘Holiday Hopes’ subjects

By Times staff
Thais Sierra, 7, displays a stocking her mother Sheila Reyes made after receiving a sewing machine from a Times reader. Reyes and husband Jose De Jesus Sierra sought a better life in Tampa after a Hurricane Maria damaged their home in Puerto Rico, but found themselves living in a cramped two-bedroom mobile home. Times readers stepped up to help the family. | Photo courtesy of Sheila Reyes.

The Tampa Bay Times’ 12th annual Holiday Hopes campaign brought an array of stories to our readers.

Over the past five weeks, we learned of Joselynn Colon’s perseverance through a troubled childhood and Carol Piller’s challenge to care for her child with learning disabilities.

We discovered the struggle of Jose De Jesus Sierra and Sheila Reyes, who relocated to Tampa after Hurricane Maria wrecked their home in Puerto Rico, and we cheered for Jonathan Black and his family as they endure Jonathan’s battle with cancer.

Here’s how our readers responded to these stories and lent hope during the holidays.

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A handmade red and white Santa Claus stocking and decorative holiday table cloth reflect the kindness of Times readers for the Reyes family.

Among the family’s request after relocating from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico was a sewing machine so Reyes could continue making costumes and outfits. She went right to work after a reader personally dropped off a sewing machine.

Having to share a two-bedroom mobile home with other relatives, the family of five also sought toys for their kids and, with any luck, a home that would provide more room than the cramped conditions they endure.

They received hundreds of dollars in gift cards for Wal-Mart and Publix. People also sent bags of toys, baby supplies, food and even wine through Course of Action PR, a local nonprofit. The father got job offers and is now working at a job installing floors.

Someone else offered them a rent-free guest house, and another person donated a bunch of furniture to put in the guest house. The guest house is too small for them at 600 square feet. But A local realtor offered to help them buy a house with zero closing costs when they’re ready.

•••

Carol Piller and her husband, Wayne, struggle with medical bills for their 13-year-old son, Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy and other health problems, and supplement their meals with food from pantries, including Feeding Tampa Bay. Piller developed a tumor on her leg that, though benign, caused considerable nerve damage that forced Piller to give up her job as a teacher’s aide.

Doctors have said that aquatic therapy would help strengthen Nicholas’ weak muscles, so Piller’s Holiday Hopes request was for a pool.

Working through Feeding Tampa Bay, one reader offered to let Nicholas use her pool, but Piller said the distance was too great to be practicable. Another reader is willing to donate an above-ground pool, but the Homeowner’s Association in Piller’s neighborhood prohibits them.

She said she and her husband planned to appeal to the HOA president for an exception to the rules. And two other readers donated cash; one sent $100 and the other sent $1,000.

"It is a nice surprise,’’ Piller said, who said she planned to thank all who made offers to help.

•••

Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office detention deputy Jonathan Black sought prayers for his recent diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and awareness of carbon monoxide poison that took the life of his daughter Emily in December of 2015.

Since the article published, they’ve received at least an additional $2,000 to their already 16,000 plus fundraiser (freefunder.com/campaign/jons-pancreatic-cancer-fight ).

They are now at a total of $18,660 raised in donations which is 93 percent of their $20,000 goal. The $18,660 has been raised by 183 people in the last three weeks.

Jonathan recently received a port placement that went well and has started his chemotherapy treatments.

•••

Joselynn Colon is a student at Starting Right, Now, a program for homeless teens. The 19-year-old Hillsborough Community College sought clothes befitting her pursuit of working as a paramedic, as well as winter wear and a phone.

Starting Right, Now director Vicki Sokolik said email inquiries offering to help have poured in since Colon’s story about enduring human sex trafficking as a child was first published Nov. 26.

Colon also got a chance to meet with officials from Americare Ambulance, a connection she believes will pay off in the future.

Times staff writer Ernest Hooper, Libby Baldwin, Philip Morgan and Monique Welch contributed to this report.