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Times readers deliver holiday hopes to needy families

As balled-up wrapping paper fills garbage bags, ornaments return to protective cases and light displays begin to dwindle, the hope that our readers gave four families this holiday season will extend well into 2014.

For the eighth consecutive year, the Tampa Bay Times presented its Holiday Hopes series, profiling people and families in need and sharing their holiday wishes in the hopes someone would lend a hand. And many did deliver, filling our recipients with gratitude. Here's how the community shined.

Deborah Barr

TAMPA — Deborah Barr has a simple wish: to learn to read. Several readers want to help and Barr said one woman came to visit her and brought her a book that they worked through together. She said the story made her famous at the housing complex where she lives. It will take patience and time to learn to read, Barr knows. But she's willing to work and excited about the help. On Christmas she visited her sister and opened her gifts: vanilla and strawberry bath soaps, a housecoat and new pots.

She says everyone keeps telling her, "You're going to get it. You're going to make it," she said.

And she responds: "Yep. I sure am."

The Blackwell family

BRANDON — The Blackwell family is living "a Christmas miracle."

"It's just amazing, just amazing to have people care about us that we don't even know," Joanie Blackwell said. "That's what's mind-boggling. The spirit of Christmas lives on. That was richer than any material gift."

The outpouring from readers touched by the family's story was tremendous, said Stacey Efaw, executive director for Emergency Care Help Organization.

The family of seven has struggled since 2001 when their father was diagnosed with brain cancer. In a time when technology dominates all, including routine homework assignments, Joanie Blackwell wanted her children to have a new laptop to help with school while allowing them to explore their creative interests in music and art.

However, her children had an idea of their own. When their mother's back was turned, they pulled out a note with a different request: a camera for their mom.

"She deserves a lot and doesn't get praised for a lot she does for our family," the note said. Readers donated $1,500, a $600 Apple gift card, a Canon Power Shot camera, an all-in-one HP computer, camera gear and a system for photography backdrops Blackwell can set up on the back porch for portraits.

The family made thank-you cards for everyone who donated and baked cookies for the owner of the North Tampa Photography store and the workers at ECHO. In hopes of paying things forward, the family spent Christmas feeding the homeless and the day after volunteering at ECHO.

"It's been a pleasure to have the children see the outpouring of support from the community," Blackwell said. "It's been miracle after miracle."

Ruby Brown

YBOR CITY — St. Peter Claver Catholic School responded to an inquiry about a family in need by suggesting Ruby Brown. In the past seven years, Ruby Brown has taken in 10 kids, the children of her four grandnieces, at her old wood home.

These kids have dealt with a lot of loss, Brown said. They usually ask for their mothers, especially on holidays. But the day after Christmas, the kids were still busy opening presents.

"You can't make up for a mom," Brown said. "But you can shower them with love and presents."

They were so happy. Readers had dropped off shoes and clothes and food and comforters and bikes and skateboards and many more toys. Before Christmas, a man named Bill took them all shoe shopping. Three-year-old Jasmine did not want to take off her new Baby Phat shoes that night.

Readers also donated tickets to the Florida Aquarium and Busch Gardens.

In addition to Mary, who orchestrated the donations through the school, the family wants to thank all who stepped up to help.

"Please tell everyone we love them and thank them for everything," Brown said. "Tampa is the place to live. People are so caring and sharing."

The Youngs

TAMPA PALMS — Perry and Samantha Young spent Christmas Day lounging in their pajamas opening gifts. A retired Army general brought Perry a new laptop and a Dragon program that translates speech into text. Readers gave the couple gift cards that they will save for a rainy day and 1-year-old KinLee got "crazy amounts of gifts," Samantha said.

Bob Silah of Operation Helping Hand said several people contacted him, some with gifts yet to be delivered.

The couple, both 21, met in eighth grade, dreaming of traveling far from their hometown in Georgia. An attack in Afghanistan left Perry a quadriplegic with a Purple Heart. He is continuing therapy at the spinal cord injury center at James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

Any money they receive will go into a travel fund. But for now, Tampa represents yet another adventure for them.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at or (813) 226-3431.

Times readers deliver holiday hopes to needy families 12/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 27, 2013 6:41pm]
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