With the holiday season rapidly approaching, Shayla Bennett was running out of options.
Recently out of work while recovering from sickness and surgery, Bennett wasn't sure how she was going to provide gifts for her niece and nephew. As the caretaker for seven-year-old La'kesiya and 15-year-old Larry, she felt responsible for providing them with a memorable holiday. But as the calendar rolled into December and Christmas neared, that seemed less and less likely.
The holidays have suddenly become a lot brighter for Bennett and her clan, however, thanks to the Glazer Family Foundation. On Saturday, La'kesiya and Larry were two of 200 children from the Bay area who were treated by the Foundation to a fabulous shopping spree at just the right time.
"The Glazers and the Buccaneers had wanted to show their support by having the kids get some good Christmas stuff this year, so we came on out and they really looked out for us," said Bennett. "It helps out a lot because some of the stuff I wasn't able to get and today they were able to come in and get what they wanted."
Before opening its doors to the public early on Saturday morning, a Target store in northwest Tampa welcomed youth from four local nonprofit agencies: The Children's Home, The Children's Home Society of Florida, Eckerd Youth Alternatives and the Police Athletic League of Tampa. 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 was funded by the Foundation, which has sponsored a holiday event for children in need since 2000.
"This gives kids an opportunity to buy things for themselves, something that unfortunately they don't often have a chance to do," said Miray Holmes, the Buccaneers' director of community relations. "They don't necessarily have the people in their lives to ask for gifts, so we wanted them to be able to do that."
While some shoppers purchased clothing or personal items to enhance their bedrooms or closets, others headed directly for the toys. Despite the disparity in selections, smiling faces remained a constant throughout the store.
"This is such a wonderful opportunity," said Angela Willis, an event attendee. "It opens up so much for kids that just can't do this all the time. So many kids don't get the chance to go and just buy something they want, and this is just an awesome experience."
Among the contributions that the cheerleaders and other volunteer shopping guides made were lessons in pricing and money management, as the children learned how to keep track of their expenditures and manage their $75 budget. Put in the unfamiliar position to choose between a variety of options, the kids soon learned that they could easily make the most out of their money.
"Well, at first I was overreacting, saying, 'What am I going to buy? Everything is going to be overpriced,'" said 10-year-old Jayla. "But after awhile I knew everything was going to be okay."
The Foundation hoped the event would provide a memorable holiday experience for everyone involved. As some of the helpers found out, event staff and volunteers weren't the only ones in the giving spirit. Some of the children sacrificed their own items to purchase gifts for others.
"The most rewarding thing for us is when the kids begin shopping and actually shop for people that are important to them in their lives, whether it is the caregivers or their siblings," said Holmes. "They are so appreciative and so thankful to us that you can't even imagine. It's so rewarding when they say, 'I want to buy for my little sister. I want to buy for my grandmother,' or someone that is important in their lives. So, I really think that it just shows the spirit of the season, even for kids that are underserved and don't have a lot."
Fifteen-year-old Dennis, for instance, took the opportunity to buy gifts for his family and friends.
"I think it's best not to shop for yourself in scenarios like this," said Dennis. "I shopped for everyone in my family and then I had to do a Secret Santa at my school. I wasn't able to buy myself a present, but a present for Christmas is giving away presents so that's what counts."
Dennis took full advantage of his chance to shop, purchasing a bottle of perfume for his mother, a necklace and book series for his sisters, and a clock for his grandmother.
"I may not be able to get everything, but I got mostly everything I needed for Christmas for my family," said Dennis. "It felt really good because I don't have a job at the moment, so it felt good knowing I would be able to get my family something instead of them [just] getting me something, to return the favor."
Meanwhile, Jayla picked out a blue purse for her mom, a Play-Doh set for one sibling and a Dora the Explorer toy for another.
"My family has been taking care of me for awhile, so I wanted to repay them for their work and their appreciation," said the young shopper. "Everything they give me, I have to give back."
As participants like Jayla could attest, Saturday's event went a long way toward creating a memorable holiday for families in Tampa Bay.
"I would love to thank [the Glazer Family Foundation] so much for helping us out, because we were in need and it is a big blessing," said Bennett. "I hope you all have the best year and thank you all so much. I really appreciate it, and I know my kids do too."