The blue bags full of goodies stretched across the floor in Destiny Church's fellowship hall in Ruskin Friday morning.
And thanks to the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, every bag was for a teacher.
In Plant City on Thursday, new teachers performed skits inside the Strawberry Festival Grounds Expo Building.
And then they lined up to receive an assortment of prizes that the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce acquired for its annual new teacher coffee — a tradition that spans some 25 years and started a countywide trend.
Similar salutes for educators took place across the county this week. In Riverview, East Tampa, Temple Terrace and South Tampa, business owners, community activists and folks who just care gathered to show appreciation for the men and women who have chosen this noble profession.
But a better reward is in store for these new teachers. They won't receive it this month or this year, and it may be a decade before the special acknowledgement arrives.
But if they show up for class every day with care, concern and compassion in their heart, I'm certain this special gift will arrive.
Frank Menendez received his gift last week.
Frank Garcia, noted paleontologist and curator of the Paleo Preserve in Ruskin, was preparing for a lecture at the Mulberry Phosphate Museum last week when Menendez approached and asked Garcia, "Do you remember me? I'm Frank Menendez, I was your music teacher at Cuesta Elementary School"
Garcia did remember and his acknowledgement of Menendez turned into a tearful embrace.
"I kept saying, 'Mr. Menendez, Mr. Menendez,' and he kept sobbing and so did I as my breath got one more 'Mr. Menendez' out."
Such reunions are the great rewards that await teachers. Sooner or later, the students whose lives they have touched return to say thanks.
At some point, adults begin to take inventory of the people who have made a difference in their lives. Invariably, a teacher holds a high spot on that list and they make an effort to reach back and say thanks.
I love to share Tyrone Keys' story with teachers, which I first wrote about in 2009 but is worthy of repeating.
At Dawson Elementary in Jackson, Miss., Keys' sixth-grade teacher, Mary Hagan, offered inspiration by having him write a paper about the NFL draft and how he could dream of playing pro ball.
With a friendly manner and caring soul, she connected with Keys and his classmates.
But at the end of that first semester, Hagan stepped down from the position. You see, it was 1970, the first year of integration in Jackson, and Hagan was a white teacher at all-black Dawson.
People opposed to integration filled her life with turmoil. Her husband's employer told him if his wife didn't stop teaching at Dawson, he would lose his job.
So Hagan gave an emotional farewell to the class, returning to Baton Rouge, La., with her husband so he could reclaim his previous job.
She read the students a poem about how much she loved them. She cried, the students cried and Keys said he and a classmate had to hold each other up walking home from school.
As fate would have it, Keys did indeed go on to play football, helping his high school team to a state title, starring for Mississippi State and playing a key role for the 1985 Chicago Bears team that won the Super Bowl.
But he never forgot Hagan. He tried to find her telephone number in the Baton Rouge phone book when Mississippi State played LSU. He wanted to give her tickets when the Bears played in the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
Finally, months before he was scheduled to be inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, he connected with Hagan. She had become a principal and had spent years telling her teachers that their reward would come years down the road.
She never knew that Keys, who now does nonprofit work in Tampa, carried the inspiration she provided in his heart all those years. She never knew he had gone on to play football and had sought her out for years. When they connected, Keys created a defining moment for her career.
In my heart, I believe such defining moments await all teachers who truly work for outcomes, not income.
Back in my hometown of Tallahassee, my 1982 high school newspaper adviser, Michele Berlow, finally stepped down after being in the classroom for more than 30 years.
I told her she may be retired, but she will always be my teacher.
That's all I'm saying.