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Hernando neighbors | Mary Scarff, 67

Hernando Neighbors: Meet a Christmas angel

The Scarff family, from left, Ryan, 18, and parents Mary and Bill, pose with a Christmas Angel tree at Bealls in Spring Hill. The Angel program helps give kids clothing, toys and other items.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

The Scarff family, from left, Ryan, 18, and parents Mary and Bill, pose with a Christmas Angel tree at Bealls in Spring Hill. The Angel program helps give kids clothing, toys and other items.

How long have you lived in Hernando County, and where do you live? Where did you live previously?

We've lived in Weeki Wachee now for 24 years. Before that, we lived in Pasco County. That's where Bill and I met, married and started our family. I was born in Pennsylvania, and Bill was born in New York.

Who are the members of your family?

My husband, Bill, and I have two children: our son Ryan, 18, who still lives at home with us, and we have a grown son, Christopher, who is married and lives in Georgia with his family.

We also have a 10-pound female Shih Tzu that we consider a member of our family.

Tell us about your career.

After working in many different fields, the last one being medical transcripts, I had to retire. I had the bad misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time — four separate times I was rear-ended by bad, inattentive drivers. The accidents left me disabled.

Bill, for the past 15 years, has been a modular building inspector for HWC Engineering Co. He travels all over the state for his work.

What kinds of activities are you involved in now?

Bill and I run the Christmas Angel Program of Hernando County. It is now in its 23rd year.

The program helps provide Hernando County children, ages birth through 18 years old, with clothing and toys at Christmas, and other needed items such as used computers, which especially help the teenagers.

In September of each year, we contact the local schools for referrals. The schools provide us with the names of the most needy. Other organizations often provide names, but primarily we rely on the schools.

Though the Christmas Angel Program takes up a great deal of our time, we also make time for our son and his activities.

Tell me more about the Christmas Angel Program.

Many years ago, Bill and I were foster parents. We quickly learned that the Foster Parent Association had no program in place to help foster parents with Christmas expenses.

A lot of people assume that when you're a foster parent, you get paid big money. When we started out, if you had a child under the age of 12, you got $160 a month. It doesn't go as far as you think, and we were never well off. Many foster parents have up to five children, so when Christmas rolls around, finances get even more tight.

Though the program began to help foster kids, it quickly grew. Since I was also a guardian ad litem volunteer, we were asked to help the children in that program, too, and then churches began asking for help.

We look for new items — clothes and toys — for the kids. Recently, we began asking for donations of working computers that we restore. Teachers would tell us that some families just can't afford computers, and these days students really need them. We have a computer technician who volunteers to do a "government scrub" so that the hard drives are totally unreadable. All information on the computers is wiped clean so folks should have no fear of having their sensitive information getting out. We also occasionally get requests for televisions.

With volunteer help, we put up our trees all around Hernando County. We make our own decorations that display the names and wishes of the children. We try hard to protect identities of kids and families, so we often code the names.

Do you have any special hobbies?

With my disability, I'm limited in the kinds of hobbies I can do. I have found that I not only enjoy hooking rugs, but it serves as therapy for my back. As I sit there and hook, concentrating on colors and patterns, I stop thinking about the pain. It helps a great deal, and I have made all the throw rugs in our house.

What are your favorite things to do in Hernando County?

Bill and Ryan like to canoe and go to movies, and as a family we attend Ryan's school functions and his activities.

What do you think would make Hernando County a better place to live?

We need more places for teens to safely gather, some safe havens for kids whose parents are working when they get home after school.

I've always had a dream to set up a computer after-school center where we can teach computer skills to teens or a place where they can get their homework done. And I'd like to see more self-help groups for parents with child-rearing issues.

We also need another and much bigger homeless shelter here. The schools tell us there are about 200 homeless children. Many are living in other people's homes, but there are many living in tents. When it's cold outside, that's when I worry the most. We need a place for all of them to be safe.

Tell us something about yourself that most people don't know.

In the past, Bill and I have struggled to make it through unemployment, so we certainly understand what it feels like to ask for help. At one time, Bill was unemployed for two years, and we visited local food pantries and requested help with our utility bills. Two times we fought to keep our house — we even had to file bankruptcy once to save it.

We are members of the First United Methodist Church on Spring Hill Drive. One of the things that attracted us to it was the fact that it had both a youth and teen program. Under the direction of the youth minister, the church offers fun things for kids under 12, as well as things for teenagers to do. Ryan is part of the teen program.

The group has gone on trips, and there is even a summer program in place. It was while on one of those trips that Ryan learned about Hernando Primate, a rescue group for lions, tigers and other small cats, run by volunteers. Ryan was so moved by it he now volunteers there every other week, helping with food for the animals and cleaning.

Hernando Neighbors is an occasional feature of the Hernando Times. Do you know someone who would make a good profile? We'd like to hear from you. Contact Jean Hayes, community news coordinator, at jhayes@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1438.

Hernando Neighbors: Meet a Christmas angel 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 10:06am]

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