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Pinellas County employees deliver joy, gifts to needy families

They don't want much. Maybe a pair of underwear. Or a notebook for school.

"The need is so much," Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said, "these kids are asking for food for Christmas dinner."

Deputies have listened to their stories in school hallways, at crime scenes, on street patrols.

All told, they've identified more than 500 children and 200 families who desperately need help this holiday season.

And on Friday at the Sheriff's Administration complex in Largo, they started delivering food, clothes and toys to the kids and families as part of the Sheriff's Christmas Sharing Project.

Now in its 16th year, the program has served about 6,400 children and families, Pasha said.

It was one of two efforts organized by county employees that delivered their goods, including about 160 bicycles, to needy residents Friday.

Kevin and Debbie Bechtel donated nearly 100 bicycles and helmets toward this year's Sheriff's Christmas Sharing Project, a tradition they started back in 2007.

"Any kid that gets a bike," Kevin Bechtel said, "the feeling's tremendous."

He is 36 years old, but his favorite Christmas present — hands down — was the red BMX bike his parents bought him when he was 5.

"I couldn't sit inside the house," he said. "Getting the bike gave me an extra feeling to go, go, go."

Now, as the head of a $2 million-a-year company, Bechtel Financial Services in Safety Harbor, he has the financial means to give hundreds of other children that same feeling he had as a boy.

"I will tell you that giving the bike feels better than getting the bike," he said. "To be able to see a parent pick up the bike and to see the look on the parent's face is an even better feeling than any of it because you know that without that gift, that child may not have even gotten a Christmas present."

A few miles to the north in Clearwater, Jerry Irizarry rode through the Pinellas County Courthouse on one of 60 new bicycles he and his colleagues purchased for area children.

Social workers with the Pinellas County Health and Human Services Department nominated eligible recipients.

Irizarry, a Pinellas code enforcement officer, solicited the donations from county employees and used the money to buy the bikes. He's been doing it for the past 23 years.

The first year there were only two bikes. A few years back, the number hit 135.

This year, Morton Plant Hospital kicked in a helmet for each bike and county workers donated additional items. Wish lists weren't limited to toys. They also included personal hygiene products and household goods.

Irizarry rode the bicycle to a truck that was waiting to deliver it to a family just in time for the big day.

A Santa hat atop his head, he sang Feliz Navidad.

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167. Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

Pinellas County employees deliver joy, gifts to needy families 12/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 7:59pm]
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