RB Aaron Stecker shows Tatishka Thomas and her two children into the family's new home
During their two years together in Tampa, running back Aaron Stecker often stepped in for former Buccaneer teammate Warrick Dunn when the latter was in need of a short rest. On Tuesday, Stecker once again filled in for Dunn, who is now a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
This time, however, Stecker's relief work didn't come on the football field.
Since leaving the Buccaneers as a free agent following the 2001 season, Dunn has continued his ground-breaking charity program, "Homes for the Holidays," in the Bay area and his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as well as expanding it to Atlanta. However, Dunn was unable to attend Tuesday's key presentations in Tampa and Clearwater this year because he had season-ending foot surgery on Saturday.
Fittingly, Stecker stepped in for the carry.
Stecker, a close friend of Dunn's from their years as Buc teammates, jumped at the chance to support "Homes for the Holidays," knowing the impact it has had on many families in the Bay area. Through the program, established in Dunn's rookie season of 1997, 42 single mothers have become first-time homeowners.
Tuesday was thus a very busy day for Stecker, who spent the morning and afternoon delivering keys to two families who were moving into their new homes.
At the first house, in Tampa, Stecker welcomed Karen Jolly and her two children, Demetrius (16) and Dominique Brown (9), with a brief speech and presented Miss Jolly with the key to her house. Jolly then took a moment to talk about the significance of this moment in her life and the lives of her children.
"Now (my children) have a place to call home," said Miss Jolly. "I feel like I did something for them that will make them proud of me."
A ceremonial ribbon-cutting was next, followed by the moment every new homeowner anticipates, the first opening of the front door. This moment differed from most people's new-home experiences, however.
Jolly was aware that Dunn had made the down payment on the house, making it possible for her to begin payments. She was not aware, however, that inside she would find a fully furnished and stocked home.
Each time the "Homes for the Holidays" program places a family in a house, it also fills the living space with a long list of necessities, all of them provided by local community partners. Among the items inside each house are a full set of furniture for each room, dishes, phones and answering machines, appliances, pots and pans, laundry detergent, food, lamps, vacuum cleaners, bed linens, bath towels and much, much more. The goal is to make each house ready to live in, with the residents needing to bring only their clothes and personal effects.
That was the surprise awaiting Jolly as she opened the front door, with Demetrius and Dominique behind her. It was an emotional moment for mom and her kids. Stecker played the role of real estate agent, showing the family all of their new gifts, including fully-stocked kitchen cabinets and a refrigerator brimming with food.
"It's a wonderful thing," said Jolly. "I just can't believe it. Christmas has truly come early."
After helping Jolly and her family into their home, Stecker headed over to Clearwater to welcome Tatishka Thomas and her two children, Armoni Clarit (7) and Keanan Musgrove (3), to the program.
Thomas had waited a long time to open her front door.
"This is a day I thought would never come," said Thomas. "I've had four different closing dates, but this has made it all worth it."
The whole family was excited. Armoni and Keanan spent most of the morning playing in their rooms, with Keanan spending a good portion of his time on the top bunk of his new bunk bed holding his brand new football-shaped pillow.
"I just want to thank Warrick Dunn for his foundation," said Thomas, "and I also want to thank Aaron Stecker for coming. I just want to thank everybody. I'm at a loss for words, all I can say is thank you."
Stecker was thrilled to be a part of this special day for two deserving families.
"It's great the way they put everything together," said Stecker. "It's an awesome feeling to be a part of this and I just feel honored that Warrick asked me to come here and share this feeling with these families."
Here Comes Santa Claus!
On the same day Stecker was helping two families realize their dreams, Buccaneers Ryan Nece, Jermaine Phillips and Justin Smith were joining Clearwater Central Catholic High School students at their annual "Here Comes Santa Claus" celebration.
At the event, students from the St. Claver School are accompanied by CCC seniors to a party at which they get to play games, eat pizza, meet Santa Claus and receive a special stocking filled with goodies.
Approximately 50 St. Claver students were brought to the high school, where they arrived by running onto the field through a human tunnel of CCC students. The students were then teamed up with their day sponsors and taken through several stations, which included a football obstacle course, a soccer skills course, a baseball station, cookie decoration and ornament construction. Nece, Phillips and Smith manned the football obstacle course, students from the high school led the soccer, cookie and ornament stations and players from the Toronto Blue Jays, including 2003 American League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, instructed the students at the baseball station.
With the students completely engrossed in their activities, Santa Claus made a surprise visit and informed the children that he had a special treat waiting for each of them after lunch.
Lunch came next, after which the St. Claver students were allowed to retrieve their stockings from the top of the gym bleachers and their gifts from under the tree. Smiles and laughs filled the air as the students opened their toys and played with them all over the gymnasium. The day was a wonderful opening to the holiday season for the St. Claver boys and girls.