DADE CITY — Until Melissa Frasier finds a job, dinner is a motley pot of lasagna ingredients feeding four generations under one roof.
Frasier lost her home of 18 years to foreclosure in 2009, and last year was laid off from her job as a medical assistant. Her unemployment compensation expired in July, leaving the family to survive on food stamps and Social Security checks from Frasier's parents, Wayne and Claudia Williams. Frasier, 44, is taking care of both parents, who are suffering from dementia. Her son Thomas, 19, and daughter Andrea, 21, are both looking for work. Andrea's children, 3-year-old Caylee and 4-year-old Cheyenne, round out the house of seven.
Today they will get a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus, bearing toys and grocery store gift cards to help them through the holidays. The visit is part of the "Blue Christmas" program organized by the Dade City Police Department.
"We target children in need," said Sgt. Tim Harrelson, who started the program last year. "We've considered families referred by the Department of Children and Family Services, Catholic Charities and from those in need who visit our fundraising stands throughout town."
Last year 11 families received donations from local businesses and the general public. With increased donations this year totaling about $13,000, the Dade City Police Department was able to expand the program to 19 families — including Frasier's family.
The Frasiers know Santa is coming, but most of the other recipients will be surprised today when Saint Nick appears on their doorstep. The program will also provide gifts for a brother and sister recently placed in foster care. The children, ages 3 and 4, were referred by the hospital emergency room after recovering from comas induced by abuse.
"Their case worker told us the gifts had to fit in a suitcase because they are bound to keep moving," Harrelson said. "So we got the biggest suitcase we could find to fit the toys and bicycles."
In late October, Harrelson and Officer Troy Fulford began reviewing case files of potential recipients, then conducted home visits to "weed the greed from the need."
"We've been burned before," Harrelson said, "like the time we found a Lincoln Navigator in the driveway and flat screen televisions. Or the mother of three who gave us a sob story so compelling that I visited her home four times. She was never there. Even when I offered to cover the cost of her GED and pay the tuition, she didn't bother to return my call. Some people just won't help themselves."
For the families that are genuinely hurting, health care costs are an important factor, Harrelson said.
While her parents struggle with heart disease and dementia, Frasier is on a waiting list for a lithotripsy procedure to break up her kidney stones. Her daughter, Andrea, needs extensive dental work that is not covered by Medicaid.
"When I was working I didn't notice how sick my mother and father were," Frasier said. "We needed to move in together. If we all were healthy, we'd have no issues."
The family takes turns using a three-seater Ford pickup with more than 100,000 miles and a gas gauge always on empty.
This week, Frasier and her family were already planning the Christmas meal they would buy with the gift cards from Santa.
"All I want is a big spiral cut ham with cinnamon and sugar glaze," Frasier said. "I'll prepare it with our traditional potato soup, chili, a cheese tray with pickles and olives, and pretzels rolled in white chocolate and glittering sugar."