LUTZ — In adopting her nephew Sidney, 4, and niece Shyla, 2, last year, Tonie Lansing felt that she got two gifts long overdue. Already the mother of two teens, she had yearned for more children but after several miscarriages, she gave up hope.
"Then God gave me these kids," said Lansing, 37, a clerk at Rushe Middle School. "I knew then as to why I couldn't have more children. I was meant to take care of these two. They're my angels. They're beautiful."
Both kids are highly intelligent, she said, but both needed special attention and tender loving care. She found that little Sidney, in particular, had some special needs.
"He couldn't climb up in a chair and sit on his own," Lansing said. "His legs were short and he couldn't jump."
Lansing and husband Jeremy, a car salesman, took Sidney to a doctor, who diagnosed him with developmental problems and an overall lack of muscular development.
Soon he began a course of treatment and physical therapy that, in Lansing's view, is working beautifully.
"You should see him now. He walks, he has riding toys and he's very intelligent," said Lansing, voice laced with pride. "He's grown by leaps and bounds."
Even so, Sidney's doctor said about a month ago that he still needed certain tools to reach his maximum potential; more specifically, he needed a bicycle to help develop his leg muscles.
Lansing does not classify her family as needy, but as a hardworking, quickly expanding unit that is watching its budget. And aside from covering the cost of Sidney's therapy, they also planned to provide their four children with a bountiful Christmas. Even so, when she visited the Land O'Lakes Toys for Tots distribution Dec. 15, Lansing didn't go to procure gifts for her own children, but for two kids that she babysat on a regular basis.
"Every family struggles these days, and help is always appreciated," she said. "But I wanted the toys to go to kids who were the most in need."
Yet when she got to the Land O'Lakes Community Center that Saturday morning, Lansing got much more than she expected.
"They gave me toys for the kids I babysat," she said, "then, out of the blue, they said 'Do you need a bike?' "
Tears flowed as Lansing said yes.
"They had no idea that my nephew needed a bike," she said. "It was such a blessing. I was so grateful."
Even more astonishing, in Lansing's view, was the fact that the bike came emblazoned with images from Disney/Pixar's Cars, one of her nephew's favorite movies.
"He loves Cars!" she said with a smile. "He's going to have his favorite character, Lightning McQueen, on his bike."
Stephanie Roshell, co-founder of the Pasco nonprofit Operation Unwrap a Smile and a Land O'Lakes Toys for Tots co-captain (sharing both responsibilities with husband Herb), was touched by Lansing's gratitude.
"She got so emotional as she told us all her story," she said. "This is what motivates us to continue giving — if we can touch the life of a family in this way."
The bicycle was one of eight donated to East Pasco Toys for Tots by area businesspeople and philanthropists Wendy and Brian Solomon. They were on hand at the Dec. 15 distribution to see Lansing receive the bike.
"We give eight to 10 bikes a year," said Wendy Solomon, adding, "A bike gives a child freedom. A child in need gets on a bike and becomes a little boy, having fun."
Lansing said she took the bike home and hid it away in her family's garage, preparing what she considered the ultimate Christmas gift for the boy who — under her care — gets a little bit stronger each day.
"He was only expecting one gift this year; that was what he was used to," she said.
Sidney got a lot more than one gift this year — and one in particular will give him the power of Lightning.