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St. Petersburg families have plenty of presents thanks to YMCA

ST. PETERSBURG — She started her day before the sun did, at 5:30, with a spread of pancakes and sausage for her children, all seven. They watched cartoons as she slipped on light blue scrubs and brushed her dark hair, streaked with pink.

Her sister, that day's babysitter, arrived just after 6, and a few minutes later Shirley Johnson headed for a house where an 88-year-old man was waiting. She got him out of bed and into the shower. She dressed and shaved him, made a breakfast of oatmeal, a banana and two slices of toast. She brought him his newspaper. He thanked her.

Just before 10, Johnson left. She had an appointment.

She pulled into the Childs Park YMCA and parked at the far end of a packed lot. She hustled to the front door, past people with wide smiles lugging pink bicycles and black garbage bags heavy with toys. A volunteer motioned her inside, and she approached two women at a table. Johnson handed one of them a green sheet of paper that included each of her kids' ages, from the oldest, 10, to the youngest, 4.

"You've got a long list, Shirley," said the woman, her eyebrows raised. The volunteer found Johnson's name on a long directory and handed back the sheet.

On Saturday, for the 23rd year in a row, the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg held its Toy Box Morning, where more than 300 low-income families picked up 3,000 free gifts for their children.

Johnson, 33, born and raised in St. Petersburg, hadn't thought she deserved a spot on that directory. She worked two jobs, one as a certified nursing assistant, which paid $12 an hour, and another in Hillsborough as a process server, which on its best days paid $125.

"I was able to buy some gifts," she said. "There are people who don't have the ability to buy any gifts."

But Johnson often volunteers for the YMCA. Two weeks ago, she and one of her sons delivered Christmas trees to people who couldn't afford them.

Deborah Figgs-Sanders, the local YMCA's executive director, met Johnson, and learned she had seven kids.

"I'm going to adopt you," Figgs-Sanders told her.

She made sure Johnson's name was on that directory.

And so on Saturday, she walked through a fluorescent hallway toward a room where the mass of toys were spread across more than a dozen tables.

Johnson took her time. She picked things up, put them back, picked them up again.

A half-hour later, before she headed to the house of a 90-year-old man, Johnson loaded her car with seven black garbage bags.

For Caleb, 10, she got Axe body spray, because his mom teases that he's a flirt. For Kenyon, 7, a kick ball, because he likes sports of all kinds. For Kenyona, 7, and Aliyah, 6, a pair of diaries, because they both like to write. For Kenyeh, 8, and Aliyjah, 6, a mini basketball hoop because a plastic bucket with its bottom cut out is tacked on their bedroom door. And for Alexis, 4, a toy doctor's kit, because she wants to help people, like her mom does.

St. Petersburg families have plenty of presents thanks to YMCA 12/21/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 21, 2013 9:13pm]

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