The treasury of the foster parents organization in Hernando County had no money earmarked for foster kids at Christmastime back in 1989 when Bill and Mary Scarff were fostering a teenager.
The Scarffs felt that such children were enduring more than their share of hardship without facing a bleak Christmas as well. Many foster parents were rearing their natural children at the same time, so disposable income didn't always add up to much.
So Bill Scarff, who had a lot of contacts among builders — he was a county building inspector at the time — spread the message.
"And they filled the need," Mary Scarff said of the local building contractors.
With the helping hands of the Weeki Wachee couple, the Christmas Angel Program was born.
"Then we got requests from guardian ad litem," a contingent of volunteers who advocate in the courts for abused and neglected children. "Then other requests came in," Mary said this week as she recounted the organization's history.
Last year, good-hearted "angels" filled wish lists for some 150 children in Hernando. "There are more requests this year," Mary said.
This year, however, very well could be the program's last.
Bill Scarff died Dec. 6 at age 64.
About three months ago, the Navy veteran was diagnosed with lung cancer, believed to have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange when he served in Vietnam.
Mary, 69, her own health jeopardized by a series of strokes this year, wanted to abandon the 2012 holiday effort. But Bill insisted they carry on. When his conditioned worsened, eight Christmas Angel volunteers picked up the heavy load.
"The volunteers wanted to do it for Bill. So that's what we're doing," Mary said.
The program is unusual in that it takes requests for gifts for children up to age 14, not just younger kids.
"We take the whole family," Mary said.
Other holiday charities note that gift-buying for young teens is pricier and more problematic. But that's easily overcome with gift cards, the Christmas Angel co-founder noted.
To reach beyond acquaintances for holiday donations, the Scarffs launched the wishing tree concept. Christmas trees bearing first names of children, along with their gender, age and wants, are set up in stores, office and building lobbies, and other public places. Donors choose a name.
"We tell a donor to shop within their means," Mary said. "We get some loose donations, some money. Then we shop for those that aren't taken."
Sweepstakes parlors welcomed wish trees this year, Mary said, and their customers have been generous. She also singled out Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals.
All referrals to the Christmas Angel Program are verified as needy by the Hernando County School District. Recipients' names and personal information are tracked through a computer data program that Mary maintains and updates. The organization is licensed and accounts are inspected by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs.
As Mary gazes at the gifts that are ready for dispersal this weekend in preparation for Christmas, she hopes the program can continue with the help of the volunteers, but is not sure whether that will happen.
Her thoughts turn to her lost partner, Bill.
"The only gift," she says, "was he didn't suffer."
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]