It was beginning to look a lot like a bleak Christmas for a little girl who attends Safety Harbor Elementary School. Her mother, a single mom, had been laid off and was trying to raise her child on $240 in unemployment benefits per week and $28 worth of food stamps each month. Holiday shopping was out of the question. So the woman was overjoyed when Hazel Krager handed her a bag of books, clothing and educational gifts for her daughter to unwrap on Christmas Day. "She was just so pleased,'' said Krager, who has been the volunteer coordinator for the annual Holiday Happiness program at the school for six years. "She said, 'You know I've just lost my job and it's really hard to make ends meet.' '' The program was started 13 years ago as a way for Safety Harbor Elementary School to help its own. Teachers, parents, community leaders and others all pitch in to make the holidays special for students who might not get anything at all. "What's so amazing is we're helping our own families,'' said Kim Linder, the school guidance counselor. "This school is a family in itself. We take care of one another.''
Each child's parents made out a short list of items they hope to see under the tree. Some scribbled out the word "shoes.''
A volunteer would pluck the tag with the list off a board in the lobby area, purchase the items, wrap them and return them to the school. City Commissioner Nadine Nickeson made several trips with armfuls of presents trying to fulfill as many wishes as possible.
"To me, the school is the heart of the community,'' she said. "Christmas in the eyes of a child is wonder and joy. To see that just makes you feel good.''
This year, one of the largest donors was the Clearwater Junior Woman's Club, which collected new apparel donated by Macy's for the cause.
"It helps boost (a child's) self esteem by having good clothes,'' said Beverly Brown, a member of the club who helped in the collection and distribution effort.
The economic downturn has hit the student body hard this year, which is evident by the number of children selected by teachers to receive presents. Last year, 100 students were chosen to participate in the program. This year, 165 from 91 families qualified.
Staff members judge if a child is needy if he or she wears shoes that are a few sizes too big among other cues.
"I see ill-fitting clothes, shoes that are too big and kids that don't have their hair combed or haven't bathed,'' Krager said. "They have to have a full tummy, they have to be clothed and feel safe. A child can't learn until their basic needs are fulfilled.''
And parents who never dreamed of taking charity are being forced to accept help.
"One lady said in years past, we've always been on the giving side of this (program),'' said Krager. "This year, we not only can't help (the program), anything you can do to help us would be a great help. The givers have become the needy.''
Another indication that parents are struggling are the reduced number of gifts donated to Holiday Happiness.
Krager organized the items by placing a handful of toys for each child on individual seats in the auditorium this week. She said in years past, "these chairs would have been overflowing.''
This year, there were only five or six gifts in each seat.
But she's confident each present will bring a smile.
Wednesday morning, Maria Rosandos and her three children Nada Avales, 1 1/2, Ricoberto Avales, 4, and Odales Avales, 9, walked into the school auditorium to pick up a bag of gifts.
Rosandos could not speak English well, so a young person translated for her.
"It's very hard for her to receive this, but she's very happy,'' the translator said. "It's difficult finding jobs, so she's very grateful this is available.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.