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Group fills Santa's shoes for smiles

They're not high-profile.

But they're big on compassion and real in their concern for youngsters in need.

The 10 to 15 who compose the Christmas Angel Program will work from now through Dec. 25 to make wishes come true for kids - something they have done every holiday season since 1989.

Coordinator Mary Scarff, who works alongside her husband, Bill, said it is the only organization that solicits gifts not only for kids but also for teens through those old enough to be in college.

Other programs, such as Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army and RSVP target recipients as old as 12.

The Scarffs got into the giving spirit when they acted as foster parents for four years and ultimately adopted nearly 14 years ago.

"We know they don't believe in Santa Claus," Mary Scarff said of the older kids. "I believe in Santa Claus."

So what's the goal of playing Santa for teenagers?

"We believe they need to go to school with some new clothes and get some gifts, and we've always believed this counts," said Scarff, 62, of Royal Highlands. "They need to know they count."

Scarff gets to know many of the families to which Christmas Angel delivers. She chokes up when she talks about the couple living in a two-bedroom single-wide in Brooksville with three teenage sons.

They're not into drugs, she said, just down on their luck, and the father only recently found a new job.

There's another Hernando family in which a couple with four children took in four nieces and nephews to keep them out of foster care.

How can a family facing obstacles like that, Scarff said, put enough food on the table and even consider Christmas?

Scarff pointed out that more than 60 percent of Hernando County students qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch, indicating a substantial need for extra Santas at holiday time.

The kids helped by Christmas Angel are screened and referred by school guidance counselors, the Guardian Ad Litem program and churches, and many have already penned their wish lists.

Program sponsors accept a list and take it from there.

"We run ads for sponsors," Scarff said. "They can call us and say what age child they'd like, and we send them the list. When they shop, we pick it up.

"Donations of money are appreciated ... and used to fill in the gaps for children we serve."

Other costs involve office supplies, gift wrap for donors who prefer not to wrap and storage. This year, Regal Oaks Storage donated space to hold the gifts.

"We don't do great numbers," Scarff said of the program, which helped 200 kids last year. "Our program is asking sponsors to shop within their means. We're asking for gifts and toys and clothes and heavy jackets and shoes and bicycles and iPods, used computers and used TVs. We're not big on used, but when it comes to expensive items, yes."

Bicycles and iPods can each run to $100 or more.

"But remember," she said, "these are kids who don't have anything."

The Hernando Builders Association and its members and subcontractors have been eager to step up to the plate with almost anything, Scarff said.

"They have always taken on our job and helped us out, and the builders do extremely well for these kids," she said.

"At a dinner in the fall, we got 22 families sponsored. These guys go crazy for these kids. One of the big guys takes five kids every year and challenges others to meet him."

Another stalwart supporter is the Spring Hill Cruisers club, which again will sponsor a classic car cruise-in from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at co-sponsor Hardee's in Weeki Wachee Plaza, at U.S. 19 and State Road 50.

Visitors are asked to bring a new, unwrapped toy. It is the only gift-giving collection point in the county for the Christmas Angel Program.

Last year, the event garnered about 200 gifts plus $400 in cash, club vice president Linda Scarpace said.

Bill Scarff has sponsored about 40 youths over the years.

Additional information on Christmas Angel and signing up for sponsorship is available from the Scarffs at (352) 596-1552.

Beth Gray can be reached at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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