DADE CITY — Jerry Perritt ached when he heard what the kids from the Florida Baptist Children's Home wanted for Christmas.
Shoes. Socks. Deodorant. Nail polish. Shampoo.
"They were asking for their own drinking cups," recalled Perritt, 69. "It just kind of tugged at my heartstrings."
Life has been good to Perritt. The former finance professor ran a small but successful investment firm, Perritt Capital Management, before selling it last year. He still does some work for the Chicago-based firm and started a rare coin business on the side. He and his wife, Gail, live in Lake Jovita. They have a special affection for children because they never had any of their own.
They wanted to help last year when they heard CenterState Bank was throwing a Christmas party for about two dozen teens from the group home in Lakeland, which provides safe haven in cozy cottages for mistreated or orphaned children.
Then the Perritts saw the teens' wish lists, practical and modest.
This wouldn't do.
"So we said, 'What the devil, tell the kids to put whatever they would really like at the top of their wish list,' " said Perritt. And he and his wife would personally buy that top item for each and every kid.
It took some nudging to get the kids to dream big. "I basically had to force them to ask for a toy or an electronic device," said Bonnie Krummen, the Dade City CenterState branch manager who launched the annual event a couple of years ago, with numerous employees and customers chipping in with gifts. "I had to encourage them: 'We want you to ask for something a kid your age would want if you could wish for anything for Christmas.' "
Last year many of the kids wanted digital cameras. Perritt watched with satisfaction as the teens spent the last hour of the party giddily snapping pictures of each other.
The Perritts made the same wish list pledge this year. They'd go out and buy the biggest gift on each kid's list, while other donors pitched in with the smaller presents. About 30 kids came to the Dade City bank on Tuesday afternoon for a party, games, dinner at Tom's Restaurant — and of course the gift exchange.
A couple of the older teens wanted items for a new life: A bed they can take when they move into their first apartment, a mini fridge they can set up in their first college dorm room.
Many kids wanted MP4 media players, which can play music and video.
"Thank you so much, I'm so happy," Gilda Ceballos, 15, said as she opened her presents: clothes, perfume, shoes and a hair straightener. "I want to be Santa Claus. I don't know how he does it."
The teens also asked for practical items for their communal homes: high-powered vacuum cleaners, pots and pans, even a weedwhacker. The Perritts bought those items, too, and held a mock auction at Tuesday's party so residents from the different cottages could playfully bid against each other for whatever they wanted.
There was a similar auction at last year's party using play money. But this year the Perritts handed thick stacks of $1 bills to each group to use in the auction. Ultimately that money would get donated to Florida Baptist Children's Home as well.
Jerry Perritt said supporting such worthy organizations shouldn't be a once-a-year event. He and his wife plan to spend more time volunteering at the Lakeland facility and helping with philanthropic efforts.
But there is a special joy in restoring the Christmas dream for kids who have lost so much. Perritt was almost at a loss for words as he saw the kids enjoy their presents.
"We just wanted to, once a year, let the kids know they should get the things they deserve," Perritt said.
Times photographer Steve Coddington contributed to this report.