HOLIDAY — Every December, before students get out for winter break, Pasco schools try to give the neediest among them a little holiday joy by providing gifts and food through the Assist, Believe and Care program.
This year, with the economy reeling, the need has grown while the donations have not.
But that hasn't stopped the spirit of giving.
Yvonne Reins has seen the effects firsthand at Sunray Elementary, where the percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals has increased from 71 percent in September to 75 percent in December.
"We really have had a larger population of families that need more than we're able to get donated," said Reins, the school's principal.
Forty-five Sunray families requested help for the holidays, the most ever in the school's history. Some just want to have a gift for their child to open Christmas morning. Some can't afford new shoes.
"We were able to get almost every item on every list," said Dee Wioland, coordinator of Sunray's ABC program.
That's thanks to the contributions of teachers and community groups including American Legion Post 173, the Women of Wyndgate, J&M Framing, and the Diva Angels of Pasco motorcycle club. Their efforts to raise money have taken longer, too. Their efforts to raise money have taken longer, too.
"We have found a decline," said Camille Mages, treasurer for the Diva Angels, noting that people still want to give but often don't have as much to share as in past years.
It's a scenario playing out across the county.
At Cox Elementary in Dade City, where 97.5 percent of students receive free or reduced-price meals, 35 families have asked for holiday assistance, up from a more usual 10 to 12.
It has gotten about six or eight inquiries monthly for help paying home utilities, up from the more common one or two.
"The requests are far beyond what we can fulfill," principal Leila Mizer said.
In addition to teachers' support, Mizer said, the school has been fortunate to get help from schools in wealthier areas, which have donated canned and dry goods collected during food drives, as well as unclaimed lost and found items each year. Community groups including the South Fork RV Park and St. Mary's Episcopal Church have contributed school supplies, clothing, gifts and more.
But some of the donations that have come in previous years have not appeared this year, Mizer noted.
Even in areas considered less needy, the trend appears.
"We've had an increase in the number of students that need assistance, definitely," said Kim Anderson, principal of Pine View Middle in Land O'Lakes.
Since the fall of 2007, Pine View Middle has seen its percentage of students receiving free and reduced-price meals increase from 17 percent to 27 percent.
Teachers and community members still support the effort, Anderson said, but the contributions have declined. She noted a recent canned food drive brought in about 15 fewer boxes than the previous year. For the first time in years, a family has asked for help paying its electric bill.
Even the number of students buying tickets to school dances is down, she said.
"You've just got to try to partner with as many community organizations as you can to make it nice for people," Anderson said.
Schools are finding that people still will give, when they can.
"In spite of the very difficult economic circumstances that employees in the school system are facing, their willingness to spend their hard-earned money on those kids less fortunate has not diminished," social worker Scott Leu, who works in Centennial Elementary, Centennial Middle and Double Branch Elementary, wrote in a note to the district.
Over in New Port Richey, an elderly woman who asked to remain anonymous showed up at a school to adopt two families for the holidays, using money left from her deceased husband's will, said David Chamberlain, who oversees the ABC program at the district level.
"Overall, it has been harder. But people are still donating," Chamberlain said.
Even if it takes all year to raise the money, it's worth it, said Mages of the Diva Angels, who also works at Sunray Elementary as the school registrar. "There's nothing more blessed than giving to others," she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.