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In Pinellas County, Christmas is a communal effort

Nyekese Bryant, 6, of Dunedin checks Santa’s beard Tuesday at WingHouse in Clearwater under the watchful eyes of Telliseia Goshay, 9, left, and her sister T’asia Goshay, 6, both of Clearwater, at an annual holiday dinner for needy families.

LARA CERRI | Times

Nyekese Bryant, 6, of Dunedin checks Santa’s beard Tuesday at WingHouse in Clearwater under the watchful eyes of Telliseia Goshay, 9, left, and her sister T’asia Goshay, 6, both of Clearwater, at an annual holiday dinner for needy families.

For some families in Pinellas County, the joys of Christmas Day would not have been as real without outside help.

Across the county, charitable organizations, church groups and businesses stepped in to provide food and presents to families who couldn't begin to afford the items on their children's wish lists.

In St. Petersburg, members of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church delivered enough presents to the Salvation Army to cover several tables. Church members also brought breakfast, feeding several dozen people who were staying in the organization's shelter and were facing the grim prospect of spending Christmas without a home.

According to one employee, all of the shelter's 112 beds were full.

"They got everything they asked for," said Taneshia Coates, 32, who held one child on her lap while her other three, ages 2 to 5, scampered around her. She moved into the shelter last week, after deciding to leave a relative's home that had become too crowded.

She starts a new job in January, but until then, there's no money for rent. And certainly none for presents, so Coates' church bought bicycles for each of her children.

"Oh, they were happy. They were ecstatic," she said.

In Clearwater, Crawford Ker, a former NFL player and owner of the WingHouse restaurants, opened one of his franchises to low-income families for a free Christmas Day lunch. This act of charity has become a long-standing tradition, he said, enduring for 18 years.

The event was a happy hour of a different sort.

WingHouse typically courts a crowd drawn to its scantily clad servers and flat-screen TVs, where a game is always on. But on Tuesday, dozens of children packed the restaurant with their families. Beginning with the littlest, children were called up by age and offered the chance to pick any present off a long table.

"We try to feed them and give them a Christmas and make sure each kid gets a present," Ker said, estimating that about 130 people had already come through the restaurant by noon Tuesday. For his staff, the day is voluntary, but many show up anyway. Each year, he spends several thousand dollars on presents alone, he said.

In the back of the restaurant, a man dressed as Santa posed for pictures with children, who crowded around him, whispering their hopes and wants into his ears.

"We don't have any family down here, so it's nice to go out and do something with other people," said Jodi Mogavero, 42, who came to WingHouse with her husband and three children, ages 3 to 10. The family has spent the past several months living in an apartment provided by the Homeless Emergency Project while it saves money for a place of its own.

Despite the family's financial situation, "The kids have had a good Christmas," she said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

In Pinellas County, Christmas is a communal effort 12/25/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 9:34pm]
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