Holiday Hopes: Readers open hearts, wallets for those featured in series

Holiday Hopes: Readers open hearts, wallets for those featured in series


Holiday Hopes: Readers open hearts, wallets for those featured in series

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Take in the news on any given day, and it’s hard to see the good in people. This year bombarded us with images of violence from Aleppo to Orlando and the most divisive presidential election in modern U.S. history. It became impossible to watch the evening news without having to shield our children’s ears or eyes.

But, it turns out, people can be kind, too.

This holiday season, the Tampa Bay Times featured four stories of people in need as part of its annual Holiday Hopes series and gave readers a chance to change lives.

They did, in generous, surprising, personal ways.

Many miles to go, Nov. 27

Readers met a St. Petersburg couple with five children, trying to make it without a car. Willie Hairston, 29, fresh off the late shift at Applebee’s, would bike home after 3 a.m. only to be up at 7 a.m., ready for another ride.

While his longtime partner Zeneta Jackson, 37, was tasked with walking their two oldest children to the school bus, Hairston would help load the three youngest into a little red bike trailer and embark on an 8-mile round-trip journey to two separate day care centers.

Not anymore.

Reader donations landed the family a 2013 Dodge minivan, purchased at a discount from Lokey in Clearwater, complete with a two-year bumper-to-bumper warranty and insurance for a year.

And that’s not even close to the end of the generosity.

Readers paid off all overdue home bills, donated a $250 gift card for each child and made $475 worth of smaller gift card donations. They bought nursing scrubs and work shoes for Zeneta, a certified nursing assistant, new work shoes for Willie and a home computer for the family.

Seven people visited Willie at Applebee’s. They hugged him and gave him encouragement. One man gave him a new bicycle.

“How are there so many good people out there?” Willie found himself asking. “All these people don’t know us from a can of paint and they want to help us?”

Zeneta cried. She called what happened a “miracle.”

The giving continued beyond the family.

The story inspired the CEO of Validus Senior Living to write a check for $25,000 to fund Wheels of Success’ caregivers program in Pinellas County, said the charity’s founder Susan Jacobs. “I fell out of my chair,” she said.

Someone donated a 2002 Suburban, which will go to a caregiver. The charity secured special permission to use cash donations to give a car to a woman with diabetes.

“How can I thank each person?” Willie asked. “If I need to go to them one at a time, I will. I want to hug each person. Everybody.”

He pursed his lips, looked away and took a deep breath.

“This family has been through so much,” he said. “Things could really start happening for us now.”

Beach is her happy place, Dec. 4

Readers learned about Mary Russell, a 77-year-old intellectually disabled woman once abandoned by her parents to an institution and now living in a home in Temple Terrace with two roommates and some help.

Mary loved it when her caretaker drove them all to the beach. But because of her physical limitations and the needs of her roommates, it was always difficult for them to stay.

Now, she’ll get to keep her toes in the sand for as long as she wants.

The Magnuson Hotel in Clearwater Beach donated two handicap-accessible rooms.

So did the Sun Burst Inn in Indian Shores.

Rita Hattab, director of development for the MacDonald Training Center, said she will most remember the efforts of one man trying to make Mary’s wish for a beach vacation a reality.

He first called to offer up his beach condo, but once he learned it wasn’t handicap accessible, he called condominium management, willing to pay for a larger unit with the needed equipment.

“I think he’s learned more about what handicap requirements are than he ever knew in his life,” said Hattab. “He’s touched me more than I can even begin to tell you.”

In the spring, when it’s warmer, Mary and her friends will get to go to the beach. Readers have donated enough money for them to have nice lunches and dinners while they’re there.

“We told Mary that she’ll be going to the beach, and immediately, she gave a thumbs up,” Hattab said. “She believes in the goodness of Christmas and she believes in the goodness of people despite all that has happened in her life.”

Future is her focus, Dec. 11

Catie Purnell, a 17-year-old senior at Plant High School, lost both parents to alcoholism. She lives in a South Tampa facility run by Starting Right, Now, a non-profit organization that houses and mentors homeless students. And despite all of the challenges in her life, she maintains a 4.5 grade point average, has applied to eight colleges and has been accepted to two.

All she wanted this holiday season was a computer and printer, for help with school work.

But readers gave so much more.

Starting Right, Now received more than 200 emails and phone calls from people who wanted to help. The day after the story ran, the charity’s founder Vicki Sokolik presented Catie with a binder holding some of the emails. “I’m extremely surprised,” Catie said.

“All of our kids had to choose a word they wanted to work on for the year,” Sokolik said. “Her word was voice. She said to me the other day, she finally realized she does have a voice, and it’s loud and clear. I said, ‘Well, you used it and look at what happened.’?”

Catie got her computer and printer. “My office looks like Best Buy,” Sokolik said.

Someone offered her the opportunity to study marine biology in the Bahamas.

Real estate lawyer Stephen Hachey, who lives with his wife and two sons in Tampa, was so moved by her story, he set up a GoFundMe account, which he had never done before, and rallied others to contribute.

“There’s so much other gift giving for no reason that it’s good to give to someone who really, truly needs it,” he said.

Sokolik estimates Catie will get a total $10,000 in funds and $2,000 in gift cards to help with college. Readers didn’t forget her older brother, who got a $150 gift card.

They also didn’t forget the charity, which got general donations and mentors out of Catie’s story.

“All of a sudden, people realize there are other kids like her,” Sokolik said.

Catie is penning a handwritten note to thank each person who helped her.

A New Year brings a new start, Dec. 18

Readers were touched by the story of Amal Mikhail, 42, and her 7-year-old son, Andrea. After escaping Egypt, where Amal had been attacked for being a Christian, she sought asylum in the U.S. and landed at a tiny apartment in Tarpon Springs. She wouldn’t ask for anything, didn’t want help or hand-outs. But her son had a list for Santa, everything from silverware to a new bed, so he would no longer have to sleep in a crib.

“We are arranging for the moving of one queen-sized bedroom for Amal and a bedroom for Andrea,” said Amira Salama, executive director at Coptic Orthodox Charities, which has received $300 in cash for the family and $1,000 in donations including household items, clothes, a bicycle and toys.

When Amal got to her part-time job at T.J. Maxx, the manager handed her a stack of new towels and a gift card, “to get whatever you want.” Amal said she didn’t want anything, except to work more hours.

Source: Watertown Daily Times
Holiday Hopes: Readers open hearts, wallets for those featured in series

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