It was two days before Christmas when Riverview foster parent Mac MacNeel got word that his family would expand by five children.
With eight birth and foster children already living in his home, MacNeel struggled to provide holiday gifts for everyone. Now he had to make sure five more children received a visit from Santa.
"I don't know if you've ever tried shopping for toys two days before Christmas, but it's just about impossible," MacNeel said. "The store shelves are wiped out. I had to split what I had among 13 kids, and none of them were very happy. I made a decision right then and there that this would never happen to another foster child in Hillsborough County."
That was 21 years ago, and MacNeel kept his promise. He founded Foster Angels of Hillsborough County Inc., a nonprofit that collects toys for foster children. Foster Angels places Christmas trees with angel cutouts bearing the names, ages, sizes and wish lists of the county's foster children in businesses, churches and schools. Organizers encourage the public to "adopt" an angel, buy gifts for the foster child they've selected and then return the unwrapped gifts to the angel tree location.
With the tough economy and so many people out of work, MacNeel anticipates a difficult year for his Foster Angels program.
"On average, we supply gifts to around 1,500 foster kids, but this year we've lost some big sponsors that have gone out of business like Piccadilly Cafeteria in Brandon," MacNeel said. "That's really going to hurt us."
Among the program's biggest donors is Tampa General Hospital, where hospital kitchen staff worker Delwyn Collins heads a year-round toy drive.
"Delwyn puts his heart and soul into collecting toys for the kids, even doing odd jobs to earn extra money for gifts," MacNeel said. "If we could clone him, the world would be a better place."
Collins agreed to take 800 angels for the Tampa General Hospital trees this year.
MacNeel said the program especially needs people to "adopt" teens.
"Every year we have the names of teenagers left on trees because they are so hard to buy for," he said. "Really, they're easier to buy for. All they want is some gift certificates so they can go out and buy what they want."
For a list of Foster Angel tree sites or to become a sponsor, contact the program's director of operations, Stephanie MacNeel, at (813) 770-4313. For more information on Foster Angels of Hillsborough County Inc., visit fosterangels.com.
Here are other local programs that collect toys for children in need.
Sincerely, Santa, a program sponsored by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, provides toys and clothing to low-income children at elementary schools throughout the county. Students on the free or reduced-price lunch program write letters to Santa giving their wish lists. Organizers distribute these lists to civic organizations, businesses, churches and at Westfield Brandon mall. With gifts in hand, law enforcement, emergency and code enforcement officers play Santa, ensuring that the presents make it into children's hands in time for Christmas.
Since Sincerely, Santa began, more than 100,000 children have received donations.
Volunteers will staff the Holiday Headquarters space in front of JCPenney in Westfield Brandon mall each Friday, Saturday and Sunday for three weekends during mall hours starting today.
For more information, or to volunteer, e-mail Sincerelysantahelpers@yahoo.com.
Brandon's Emergency Care Help Organization, known as ECHO, provides temporary help to residents facing a financial crisis. Each year, ECHO collects toys, books and games for children of all ages so clients can give them to their children at Christmas.
Supporters include O'Brien's Irish Pub of Brandon, and Ferraro, Higginbotham & Hayes, P.A., of Brandon, which host toy drives for ECHO.
Stacey Efaw, ECHO's executive director, said the organization especially needs gift cards for teens.
Donations can be dropped off at ECHO, 507 S Parsons Ave., Brandon, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays; at Ferraro, Higginbotham & Hayes, 217 Lithia-Pinecrest Road; or at O'Brien's, 701 Lumsden Road.
For more information, call ECHO at (813) 689-0935 or O'Brien's at (813) 661-9688.
Letter Carriers' Toy Drive
Working hand-in-hand with the United States Marine Corps Reserve, the United States Postal Services will participate in the Tampa Bay Toys for Tots toy drive Dec. 6 throughout Hillsborough County. On that day, residents can place a new, unwrapped toy at their mailboxes for pickup.
Donate larger items, such as bicycles, by calling (813) 805-7042. For information, e-mail info@toys fortotstampabay.org.
Local motor enthusiasts will unite for the 16th annual Toy Run to benefit Cookson Hills Children's Christian Home, a foster home for children in Seffner and other foster children in east Hillsborough County.
This year's toy run starts at 10 a.m. Dec. 6 at Veterans Memorial Park, 3602 N U.S. 301, and ends at Evans Park, 1104 N Kingsway Road, Seffner. The cost to participate is one new toy for a child. After the 20-mile ride, there will be an auction, entertainment, a drawing and food, including ribs, burgers and hot dogs. Trophies will be presented for best holiday-decorated vehicle and best of class for motorcycle, dune buggy, car and truck or van. An unwrapping ceremony begins at 2:30 p.m. A list of 300 children needing toys, clothing and other items is at cooksontoyrun.com. Those who cannot participate in the toy run can send checks to Cookson Hills Toy Run Inc., P.O. Box 113, Seffner, FL 33583-0113, or to Mercantile Bank, 1018 W Lumsden Road, Brandon, FL 33511.
For information, call Bill or Sheri Brown at (813) 643-5758.