CLEARWATER — The children were in the Publix checkout line last week, their cart filled to the brim with fruit and other supplies for their lemonade stand.
"What are you doing with all these watermelons and strawberries," the cashier asked.
The good Samaritans, who range in age from 4 to 13, told her about their idea to raise money for Pinellas Hope, a shelter in unincorporated Pinellas that helps the homeless.
The cashier was so moved, she gave them a dollar and told her manager about their community service project.
Hours after the kids opened their stand on Saturday afternoon, the manager sampled their watermelon lemonade and extended an offer that no one expected.
"Tomorrow," she said, "I'd love to have it in front of Publix."
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Originally, 10-year-old Michaela Sciandra said, the lemonade stand "was supposed to be in our front yard."
Michaela and her six friends call themselves the Meerkatz Gang. They live along Long Bow Lane in Clearwater and have an underground clubhouse.
This past weekend, they learned that when they stopped thinking about themselves and more about others, they could reap great rewards.
That lesson came through customers like:
• Cathie Beckman, the Publix cashier who was so impressed with the children that she alerted her manager about their selfless deed.
• Amy New, the Publix manager whose unexpected offer gave the kids more visibility and more customers than any of them expected.
• John Beauchamp, the Locksmiths Hair Designers owner who donated 15 gallons of shampoo and free haircuts to Pinellas Hope clients who have secured work.
"You'll encounter people that you never thought you'd know," said Vincent Pesce, 13.
The outpouring was more than he or any of his friends imagined.
"We felt we were going to earn, like, a $100," Michaela said. "We had lemonade stands when we were little. It was nothing big. Like, $10."
But when the lemonade stand closed on Sunday evening, more than 400 people had passed through and $550 had been raised.
"The way that this came together in 48 hours and how much was donated and how much was raised," said James Sciandra, Michaela's father, "we really believe God opened up doors for us and we feel blessed."
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The members of the Meerkatz Gang have already moved on to their next act of kindness.
Friday, they plan to scour their neighborhood for clothes, food and other items for residents of the Center of Hope, a Christian-based rehabilitation facility for addicts.
"I think they're going to always end up doing something like this for others," James Sciandra said. "It won't be, 'Well, we want to get a new shirt or anything like that.' I think it'll be, 'What can we do to help other people?' "
Rodney Thrash can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.