Third-grader Tristan Valverde had it all down: the cute facial expressions and the proper gestures that went with singing that fun song from Grease:
We go together like
Rama lama lama
Ke ding a de dinga a dong
Remembered forever like
Shoo bop shoo wadda wadda yipitty boom de boom.
Tristan and his classmates performed for about 450 rather smitten grandmas and grandpas in the Betmar Acres clubhouse. When it was all over, Bryan Toll, sitting in the front row and wearing a red and white Santa hat, was the first on his feet, leading a rousing standing ovation for the third-graders from the nearby school who came to read poetry and sing songs.
"It's beautiful," said Toll, 74, clapping all the while. "This is a wonderful thing. We can't wait for this every year."
No doubt about it, the annual "Grandma and Grandpa" holiday get-together is something the West Zephyrhills Elementary students and Betmar residents all look forward to. For the past nine years, the two groups have been part of a reciprocal relationship that is helping fill voids for all.
It started when the price of postage went up to $50 to ship the mittens that residents had been knitting for children living on an American Indian reservation in Arizona, said Betmar activity director Dee Payne.
"I was looking for donations for the postage," said Payne, "and one of our residents called and asked me, 'Are there no cold children here in Zephyrhills?' "
So Payne called the neighborhood school, West Zephyrhills Elementary, to ask about that.
"You have no idea," Becky Bishop, the school's parent involvement coordinator told her.
"And that," said Payne, "began the love."
Ever since that conversation, Betmar residents have stepped up as impressive school sponsors for the students at West Zephyrhills Elementary.
"She tells us the need," said Payne of Bishop. "And we're the supply."
Each year Betmar residents collectively donate bunches of school supplies, said Bishop. They help supply snacks, toothpaste and toothbrushes for children in the pre-K program. They drop off carloads of clothing that's brand new or picked up used at a local garage sale. They give their money, too: Close to $1,500 came just last week through collective and individual donations to help needy students and their families through the school's ABC (Assist, Believe and Care) program.
Residents knit mittens, scarves, hats and ponchos throughout the year to help warm students. And they also give their time, volunteering in the classroom, tending to the school garden or perhaps entertaining while playing a toy trumpet, the spoons or a metal washboard tie as part of the Betmar Kitchen Band.
And even in a time of recession, their devotion has never waned, said Bishop.
"This year has just been overwhelming because there's so many needy families and all you hear is nobody is giving this year," Bishop said. "Then you go over there and they just open their hearts."
And of course they top it off with the annual holiday party, at which residents made it a point to get into it big time. There's Jim Millar, from Scotland, who donned a green plaid kilt and hat and played the bagpipes while leading students from their bus to their place on the clubhouse stage. And Luman and Barbara Rockhill, who greeted students, providing the magic of Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Fraternal twin sisters Lucy Mastrogiacomo and Connie Johnson stacked up the wrapped presents they purchased for each of the 36 children who came to perform. Also participating was Charlotte Vosburgh, a former elementary school teacher and trumpet player with the Betmar Kitchen Band, who helps knit hats, scarves and sweaters throughout the year to be given to West Zephyrhills students.
"It was great — I feel thankful," said Brook Ankers, 9, who admitted to be "kind of nervous" while performing with her class at the party. "I got to see Santa. I got a present and a hat and mittens."
"It's a lot of fun," said Tristan, 8. "I like singing for them."
And what do the residents get out of it?
Well, the students write thank-you notes, perform on occasion for residents and once a year plant flowers at the park, Bishop said.
Then, of course, there's the intangible kind of gift that often means so much more.
"It brings back good memories," said Lee Hubbard, 79. "When you see the happiness on their faces."
"We get a good feeling that lasts all year long," said Johnson, 69.
"And the fact that you can't be with your own children and grandchildren because they live up North," said Johnson's twin, Mastrogiacomo, "well, this kind of makes up for it."