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As holidays approach, it's time to think of the needy

Imagine you are seven years old. You live in northwest Hillsborough County. The land of swimming pools. Of security gates. Of Halloween, as you will see in today's cover story, on horseback.

Then one day your teacher gives you an unusual homework assignment. It involves something called a "penny harvest." She wants you to come to school with pennies for the poor.

What are the poor?

"It is hard for them to understand that some people just do not have a Thanksgiving meal," says Tricia Coonts, a PTA secretary whose daughter is taking part in a penny harvest at Northwest Elementary School.

So young Stacey Coonts is getting a lesson as she dutifully rounds up pennies. "We swipe them off her dad's basket, where he keeps his change," Tricia said.

The money will buy turkeys and other food for the Day Star Life Center, which serves needy families "Last year we collected $1,400 in pennies. This year we are trying to break that record," she said.

Yes, the holidays are upon us. Tonight commences the annual Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas trifecta, during which most of us will over-indulge, over-schedule and spend way too much money.

But the rush is also on for area charities.

"I'm trying to organize Christmas, and I'm not even through with Thanksgiving yet," says Connie Sikkema of Northdale, who collects everything from groceries to first-aid kits for migrant farm workers from her Carrollwood-based Migrant Ministries (961-2182.)

Sikkema fears this year she will have to pay for wrapping paper and other paper goods that were donated in the past. Worse, her trademark yellow truck needs $3,000 in repairs. "Santa's sleigh is dead," she said. "But I will get it fixed."

It would appear, with so many charities around and with so many people focusing instead on shopping and decorating and travel, that there just would not be enough time or money to go around.

Not exactly, Sikkema said.

Frustration sets in when her own family members tell her, "Mom, you've spent your time doing things for other people's Christmas." But overall, she says, "I really feel that people's hearts are more benevolent during the holiday season."

We have written about this benevolence in the past _ about gifts that the Carrollwood Kiwanis collected for the Faith Children's Home, about the Toys for Tots drive at the Carrollwood Area Business Association's Christmas tree lighting.

This year we want to do better.

We want to publish enough information about holiday charitable events, and do it early enough, to help you raise the money and volunteers that you need.

So please, if your church or school civic group is doing something to make the holidays more joyous for others, drop us a line.

Put it in writing, so we can be sure it gets in the right hands. Specify what you need: volunteers? money? toys? Include a name and contact phone number. Send it to Erika Peterman, our North of Tampa reporter who covers churches.

Our address, fax, phone numbers and e-mail address are on page two, and we will publish this information throughout November and December.

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