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Sincerely Santa brightens holiday for underprivileged Hillsborough kids

BRANDON — Sylvia Moten handed several folded bills to Nellie Taracido, who manned the Sincerely Santa booth with 16-year-old son Zachary in the Westfield Brandon adjacent to the Dillards entrance.

Sylvia's husband, Pastor Rufus Moten, soon followed suit.

When asked if they were familiar with the organization's mission the Tampa couple nodded in the negative, saying they simply assumed by the name it involves granting wishes to children at Christmastime.

"Every day when I wake up I ask God what he would have me do to be a blessing in someone else's life," the pastor said.

That is exactly what he and countless other Sincerely Santa donors have done to put smiles on the faces of more than 100,000 underprivileged and at-risk kindergarten through third grade students in Hillsborough County's public schools since the program's inception in 1987.

Without the public's generosity it's likely those youngsters would have no Christmas presents, according to Sincerely Santa President David Raasch, also a Hillsborough County Fire Department captain.

Every year teachers and social workers from the area's 159 elementary schools are tasked with determining the neediest of students from a myriad of individual handwritten "Letters to Santa."

In turn, those letters are placed in dozens of binders and put on display at the mall in the hope that shoppers will select one or more of the children's letters and purchase the items they've requested for Christmas. Gifts for their siblings, whose names and ages are included with the letters, may also be bought.

Unwrapped gifts can then be brought back to the booth for delivery to the children's homes by volunteer elves from the Hillsborough County Fire Department, Tampa Fire Rescue and the Temple Terrace Fire Department.

Raasch estimates 3,200 youngsters will be served this year. No child or sibling of a child whose letter was selected for the Sincerely Santa program will be forgotten.

Every year Toni Delregno of Temple Terrace makes it a priority to purchase Sincerely Santa gifts for at least one child and all of the child's siblings.

Although she has a son of her own, he has special needs and, with the exception of one toy she's given him, he doesn't show appreciation for Christmas gifts.

"It helps fill that void at Christmastime and I want these kids to think the presents came from Santa Claus," Delregno said.

Gifts not purchased by Dec. 18 will be bought on Dec. 20 at the Walmart Supercenter on East Brandon Boulevard by fire rescue personnel and other Sincerely Santa volunteers.

Raasch remembers receiving plenty of Christmas gifts as a child, but when he began responding to fires and other emergencies in homes throughout the county it opened his eyes to a side of life he'd never encountered.

He was taken aback by the high number of impoverished parents and grandparents simply struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. Providing presents for their children at Christmastime is not an option.

"I wanted to give back for my good fortune and my department got behind me," said Raasch, who's been involved with the Sincerely Santa program for 23 years.

"It's really a team effort in that we've got the support of fire rescue administrative heads throughout the county," he added.

Dr. Debra Hoffman, a chiropractor with an office in Temple Terrace, serves as Sincerely Santa's treasurer. She came on board in 1998.

In her view, most adults are at their stations in life due to the choices they've made, but the same can't be said about children.

"It humbles you because some of these kids ask for blankets and shoes, basic needs, and it makes you realize that these kids really have and want for so little," Hoffman said.

Her thoughts clearly play out in a small sampling of the children's "Letters to Santa."

Simmel, 6, would like a necklace, a bracelet and a baby doll; Khari, 7, wants a pair of shoes, a book bag and a football helmet; and Joselin, 5, hopes for a pink Spider-Man shirt, a Spider-Man car, and food, especially fruit.

Contact Joyce McKenzie at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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