One teacher canceled her family's Christmas. Another faced losing his home. Another struggled to provide a happy holiday for her six children.
With those worries among them, the 30 teachers and staffers from Safety Harbor Montessori Academy gathered Friday for their annual holiday party. Midway through, Santa arrived and handed out stockings. He told them not to look inside until everyone had one. Then he gave the go-ahead.
"Oh my God," many murmured. Then there was screaming, tears and hugs. A rush of recognition rippled across the room.
Inside the stockings: checks for $10,000.
"This means that my children will actually get a Christmas this year," said teacher Maureen Apple of Dunedin, the mother of six.
Anonymous benefactors had heard some teachers at the school were struggling with their finances and donated $270,000, split among the staff. Part-time staffers got checks for $5,000.
With salaries of roughly $25,000 to $50,000 a year, some of their paychecks don't stretch far enough. Many have seen their husbands, wives, sons or daughters lose their jobs in the economic downturn.
The donors, whom school officials would identify only as a couple, wanted to show appreciation to the teachers and staff, said Melinda Robinson, who owns the school with her husband.
"They said that they felt the world needed some optimism right now," she said.
The school has more than 200 students ranging from 1 year olds to eighth-graders. Full-time tuition ranges from about $9,000 to $10,000 annually.
Bonita van Dorsser of St. Petersburg, who teaches 2 year olds and has eight grandchildren, said both her son and daughter have been laid off. The family had planned to skip Christmas this year.
"We decided just to keep it simple this year, keep it focused on the family instead," she said. "I think it's more important to pay your bills."
But with the windfall, she will get to see her three adult children for Christmas, she said. She also plans to go back to school.
Dave Fabiano of Tampa, who does part-time maintenance work, said he would use the money to see his son, who has returned from Iraq.
"I'm going to bring him home from Louisiana" for Christmas, Fabiano said.
Teacher Meaghan Maxwell of Tampa, a single mother with two children, said she will start a college fund.
Her friend, teacher Sandi Damouni of Clearwater, will pay off credit card debt she accumulated in college.
Tom McLaughlin of Clearwater, a music teacher, said his wife was laid off a week ago. The couple, who have a baby who was born prematurely, feared losing their home.
"We can keep our house now, for another six months anyway," he said. "It will give us some breathing room."
Theresa Blackwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4170.