In tough year, Elf Project reaches more needy students with Christmas gifts

Blanton Elementary fifth-grade teacher Courtney Mack, the “Head Elf” of the Elf Project, sorts donated gifts in an empty classroom Wednesday morning. In the backround, guidance counselor Debbie Holland, left, and PTA member Leshayne Maddex assist.

Photos by JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Blanton Elementary fifth-grade teacher Courtney Mack, the “Head Elf” of the Elf Project, sorts donated gifts in an empty classroom Wednesday morning. In the backround, guidance counselor Debbie Holland, left, and PTA member Leshayne Maddex assist.

ST. PETERSBURG — Christmas came to Blanton Elementary on Wednesday and the kids there don't know it yet.

Strangers wrapped gifts in red and green and blue and gold for children they don't know. Some tied them with ribbon and affixed little greetings.

But the gift tags were nameless. No "to" or "from."

Instead, each had a number and a description of what was inside — the holiday hopes of 238 children, kids for whom Christmas itself is a wish.

Girl, Age 10, Grade 4, dog stuffed animal

Boy, Age 8, Grade 2, Star Wars Legos

Boy, Age 5, pre-K, socks

•••

For more than 14 years, Blanton has run the Elf Project to make sure students at its high-poverty school get something for the holidays.

Whether it's toys or underwear or school uniforms, children in need get something their families are struggling to provide, thanks to sponsors willing to spend $50-per-student.

This year, as the school began to tally the list of needs against the list of donors, things started to look dire.

Past sponsors were bowing out at the same time student needs were growing. Teachers signed up to adopt more kids, but still 69 children needed help.

Principal Debi Turner sent an email to all principals in Pinellas County. She decided to do what she's become practiced at doing.

"I'm the town beggar," she says.

So, she begged.

I have never had a year with such financial needs, she wrote. If your PTA or private organization would like to sponsor a child for the holidays please let me know.

•••

When Turner thinks of the Elf Project, she can't help but think of Carolyn Cawthon.

Cawthon taught reading to children with learning disabilities. Everyone at the school credits the teacher with starting the Elf Project.

When parents couldn't make it to the school to pick up their children's gifts, Cawthon would rope her husband into hand-delivering the gifts on Christmas Eve.

Before Cawthon died of cancer in 2006, she asked Turner to continue the Elf Project.

It was a no-brainer for Turner, whose leadership style includes washing students' clothes on site when needed and collecting shoes for fast-growing kiddos.

Within two days of sending the email, Turner got a response she didn't expect.

Someone forwarded her message to Superintendent John Stewart, who wrote back simply:

"We will pitch in and do our part to help for sure."

Stewart then sent his own email, exhorting those in the district's offices to consider giving to a children's gift fund. Donations totalled more than $4,200.

Turner got first dibs on the money, but after all her bush-beating, she only needed $600. So the district spread the rest around.

Children at Woodlawn, Melrose, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Campbell Park, Sandy Lane and Belleair elementary schools are getting gifts, too.

•••

All week, Blanton fifth grade teacher Courtney Mack has been receiving wrapped gifts, then calling parents to come pick them up — a discreet way to help families surprise their children on the big morning.

Sometimes she hears sobs on the other end of the line. Sometimes a disconnected notice.

"It's so amazing," she said Wednesday as she looked over the rows of presents wrapped in bright greens and reds, in Santas and candy canes and snowmen.

"Oh that's a big one," said John Fady, 36, Cawthon's son, who still volunteers at the school. Before him, a bright red box decorated with Christmas trees sat on a cart.

Girl, the tag read. Age 5, Grade Kindergarten, tea set with table.

Laurie Perez, 48, blinked back tears after picking up a bag of wrapped gifts for her son.

A working mother of four whose husband is out of a job, Perez said the program has been a relief. Her 11-year-old asked for Legos and Xbox this year. "It's been rough," she said. "What they ask for I can't give them. It's way too much."

The gifts kept pouring in Wednesday. Two PTA moms from Brooker Creek Elementary in Tarpon Springs delivered 200 of them for 100 students. The school has been a constant support to Blanton for years.

Leshayne Maddex, a Brooker Creek mother of two, spent weeks inventorying the gifts and making sure all the donations matched what kids' families said they wanted or needed.

Skateboards. Remote controlled cars. Battery-operated barking puppies. Barbie Dolls. As the volunteers organized the gifts Wednesday, they found one without a label.

A toy car.

They checked the list again and walked through the gifts. Every one was accounted for. So, Maddex searched for one gift that stood out in her memory and attached the stray toy.

"A 5-year-old boy who only asked for socks and pants," she said aloud when she found it. "He should have cars, too."

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the correct spelling of Carolyn Cawthon's last name as it was incorrect on second reference.

In tough year, Elf Project reaches more needy students with Christmas gifts 12/14/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 12:54pm]

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