BRANDON — Sheri and Bill Brown have collected two decades worth of down-home, make-you-feel-good-all-over, heartwarming stories of Christmastime magic.
They vividly recall the family with three children who walked 10 miles in 40-degree temperatures five years ago so their children could open Christmas presents.
Recently, a Spanish-speaking youth cried because he received a soccer ball when his only hope was that his younger siblings would be able to unwrap gifts. And more than one teenager, after graduating from high school, has let the Browns know they helped turn their troubled lives around.
For 20 years, the Browns have spearheaded the Cookson Hills Toy Run. The event bestows Merry Christmas memories upon "forgotten" children (newborns to 18-year-olds still in high school) mostly from the Riverview, Gibsonton and Thonotosassa areas. The Browns' gift giving also reaches special-needs individuals, seniors and veterans.
A modest effort that began in 1993 helping 18 people at Seff- ner's Cookson Hills Christian Ministries has turned into an annual event on the first Sunday of every December, providing gifts to more than 6,000 people in need. But faced with rising funding and health challenges, the Browns fear that the Dec. 1 toy run that begins at 10 a.m. at Veterans Memorial Park in Tampa may be the last.
"My heartbreak is that it will end this year and all the people we have helped will fall through the cracks and be forgotten once more," said Sheri, who has supplemented small business donations with $40,000 of the Browns' money to pay for everything through the years.
Sheri said last year's event cost $26,000 and the Browns, who are both in their 60s, are still personally paying $5,000 on that tab. Bill is a cancer survivor who last year was diagnosed with an incurable hole in his heart that causes mini strokes, and he recently had to undergo a bladder and kidney biopsy. Bill's doctor has suggested the Browns make this the last toy run they organize out of their Brandon home.
"He's lucky he's still alive," Sheri said of her husband. "The doctors told us it's time to stand down. I hope that an organization will step up and take over the event."
Sheri said the event is turnkey and she would be happy to share the blueprint and keep helping as a volunteer if another association would take over the event planning. The 2011 event was the only one the Browns didn't have to open their own wallets because they had enough donations.
The Greater Seffner Area Chamber of Commerce awarded the Browns the Sharon Carter Community Service Award in September. Former chamber president Lori Libhart has attended several Cookson Hills Toy Runs and always brings a Hess truck to give directly to a 6- or 7-year-old boy.
"(The Browns) are simply fantastic," Libhart said. "The event is well organized and I get really excited to see all the children."
Last year, more than 600 people, including 42 veterans, received Christmas presents. More than 2,000 participants helped 450 people the day of the toy run, and the rest received gifts after the event all the way up to Christmas Eve.
Libhart, who sits on several boards, says finding a surrogate organization to take over future toy runs is not an easy task.
"Every organization exists because it has a particular mission," she said. "Cookson Hills has grown and is near and dear to Sheri and Bill's hearts. What you are asking is for people to take over a mission that's already there."
Still, Sheri remains hopeful that a group will see the intrinsic value of the Cookson Hills Toy Run and want to carry on the tradition.
"The event is well worth it because the people appreciate it," Sheri said. "Many people don't know it's just Bill and myself and it might be the last year. Twenty years is a heck of a legacy but I would hate to see it die."
Call Sheri at (813) 643-5758 to help.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]