Bucs mascot Captain Fear and dozens of other volunteers helped the invited children do their shopping
For a lot of lucky children, the holiday season creates lasting memories of parties, overstuffed stockings and toys in abundance.
Unfortunately, that's not the case for all children. Sometimes, only items of the barest necessity make it onto the wish list for Santa Claus.
Last Saturday, however, thanks to the Glazer Family Foundation and the Buccaneers Women's Organization, 250 disadvantaged children from the Bay area were treated to a holiday shopping spree that will help make this year's season much more festive.
Before opening its doors to the general public last Saturday, a Target store in northwest Tampa welcomed youth from six local nonprofit agencies: Cornerstone Family Ministries, Hillsborough Kids, Inc., the Police Athletic League of Tampa, The Children's Home, The Children's Home Society of Florida and The Spring of Tampa Bay. Once inside, the special shoppers were greeted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders, Captain Fear, Student Advisory Board members, the Women's Organization and Buccaneer staffers. The eager shoppers were then matched up with a volunteer to hit the aisles and commence filling their carts.
The annual outing, which more than tripled in size in 2009 from last year, was funded by the Foundation and members of the Women's Organization. A group of 75 lucky shoppers were invited to participate in 2008, but this year organizers set their sights higher.
"I think the economy and our times indicated that we do that, so we wanted to be as aggressive as we can," said Miray Holmes, the Buccaneers' director of community relations. "They are kids that for one reason or another may have been taken from their homes because their parents are not in a situation to care for them, so they're not really with their families and are probably experiencing some hardship. So we're trying to provide more of them with some sense of the holiday season."
While some shoppers purchased items for their bedrooms and bathrooms, others headed directly for the toys, providing a wide variety of items that were picked off the shelves throughout the morning. Despite the disparity in selections, smiling faces remained a constant throughout the store.
"If you don't have any holiday spirit, all you have to do is walk through the aisles," said Melissa Sevegny from The Children's Home Society of Florida. "It brought chills to me to see the kids bonding with the volunteers; I saw them joking around out there. They love the mascot and the cheerleaders, especially our boys are very excited about having the cheerleaders shopping with them, so the kids are just really excited and very high-energy. It's a happy atmosphere to be in."
Among the contributions that the cheerleaders and Student Advisory Board made was a lesson in pricing, as many kids learned how to keep track of their expenditures and manage their $75 budget. Equally important was the chance to decide which purchases to make - an opportunity for many that is few and far between.
"A lot of the kids in our group are not necessarily in a financial situation where they would be able to go to a store and pick out even small amounts of toys or things like that," said Sevegny. "So for them to be able to come out and say, 'Here's this amount of money' and be able to spend it on maybe the bigger items that they wouldn't necessarily be able to get is pretty empowering for them. They feel like they matter and are able to have some joy in their life as well."
The Foundation hoped that the event would provide a memorable holiday experience and ensure that children left happy.
"It's very easy to write a check and hand it to an organization, but to bring these kids in here to actually see the beneficiaries enjoying and being able to get what they need and what they want is definitely more impactful," said Holmes. "If you're shopping with those kids and when you see them at the checkout counter, there really is no way to describe how happy they are. I think it's the fact that we allow them to pick out what they want instead of us doing it for them. We think it's very important that we allow them to do it."
As some of the morning's volunteers found out, the Glazer Family Foundation and the Women's Organization were not the only groups in the giving spirit on Saturday. Some of the children sacrificed their own items to purchase gifts for family members instead.
Eleven-year-old Garrett Gustafson took the opportunity to purchase gifts for his family instead of himself.
"I hadn't gone Christmas shopping yet and I thought they'd like to have some stuff for Christmas," said Gustafson. "[I shopped for] my brother, my sister, my grandma and my mom. I got them candles, my brother a football and my sister a CD. It's nice to do stuff for other people because when you do nice stuff for them, they do nice stuff for you."
As the nonprofit agency representatives would attest, it is an easy decision each time they are offered an opportunity to participate in a Glazer Family Foundation event such as this.
"This almost makes me misty-eyed to see that the Glazer Family Foundation is doing such a wonderful thing for the kids and it makes my job as a mentor that much more rewarding," said Rick Akerley, Gustafson's mentor.
Added Sevegny: "They are super-excited, you hear them already talking about experiences that they are having. Even for me personally, I think that the experience is very rewarding and great for my heart being able to see the kids having such a rewarding experience."