Lynn Walters has spent 20 years sheltering children removed from their homes for various reasons. She and her husband, Jim, adopted eight of them while raising their four biological children.
"We did what we could,'' she said, "but it's never enough. They just keep coming. They're society's children. We all have to take care of them.''
Being a foster parent is especially emotional this time of year. Walters, who lives in Hudson and volunteers with the Pasco Foster/Adoptive Parents Association, routinely asks the children what they want for Christmas. The answer is almost always the same: "Go home.''
Reunification of families is the goal of child advocates, but it's complicated. These days so many children come into the system because their parents are abusing drugs and alcohol. "Prescription pills,'' Walters says. "Parents are hooked on pills. They can't take care of their kids.''
In Pasco County last year, according to state records, 676 children were removed from their homes. Authorities attributed drugs and alcohol in 479 cases. In Hernando County, which has only a fourth of Pasco's population, 207 kids were removed with drugs and alcohol blamed 134 times.
These are depressing statistics, but last week Walters chose to focus on two acts of kindness that brought her to tears.
Today in Weeki Wachee, the Magnolia Terrace Tea Room is feeding 300 children and their foster families from Hernando and Pasco counties. Karen Dennehy has been collecting presents and donations for the children who have signed up for meals at various times from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. She put up trees with the children's first names, their ages and their top three wishes for Christmas. She recruited a Santa and a host of young volunteers, mainly from Weeki Wachee High School.
"Tykes to teenagers,'' she said on Thursday, taking a brief break from hosting a room full of 70 lunchtime diners. "I just want to give these children something positive, a really nice memory. We contacted the foster parents associations in both counties, but I had no idea we would end up with 300 kids. But why not? This is spectacular.''
Dennehy obviously thinks big when it comes to helping the less fortunate in our community. At Thanksgiving, she gathered her staff to cook 1,500 pounds of turkey. "We just wanted to serve people who were lonely,'' she said.
That same benevolent spirit exists at the Alli Gators restaurant at Ridge Road and U.S. 19 in Port Richey, where Warren Dunphy will host 109 children from 17 foster families for dinner at 6 p.m. Tuesday. He's been doing this since 2007, digging into his own pocket to buy gifts for Santa to pass out to the kids.
Last year, Carol Dunphy, his wife of 42 years, helped prepare for the party despite chronic migraine headaches. She bought gifts and wrapped them. Then, one month before the event, she suffered a stroke and died in her sleep.
"She never complained, even when she had such pain,'' her husband said. "It's really tough this time of the year, but having the party for the kids helps. It's good to have something so positive to work on. When you see the kids with their gifts, it just warms your heart.''
One day, some of these kids will get their wish to go home. But for the time being, it's gratifying to know there are kindhearted strangers in our midst willing to sacrifice their own time and money to provide at least a few hours of happiness.
That is the true Christmas spirit.