I always look forward to this time of year, and believe it or not, it starts with Halloween. While each season brings us something different, I think the joy and anticipation of the holidays make this time of the year a little more special. It all begins with the fun on that ghoulish Halloween evening where we enjoy watching kids dress up as their favorite characters, filling their bags with candy as they “trick or treat” their way around the neighborhood. I remember those days dressing up in costume myself, coming home with enough candy to feed a small country, much to my dentist’s delight. As I’ve grown older, that exuberance has evolved into a satisfaction I see in others having on this fun-filled evening.
A few weeks later, we go from ghosts and goblins to pilgrims and turkeys. We welcome a season of thanksgiving and seem to rekindle more vital compassion for others. It is a time of year when our greatest joy comes from giving more than receiving. We seem to find inner peace in decorating our homes and listening to the season’s music, pausing to cherish each moment.
While I’ve always wanted to savor each holiday to its fullest, like many, we were ready to usher in the holidays earlier this year so we could inject a little joy into our lives after the devastating effects of Hurricane Ian. While I think most of us experienced less impact from this storm than we did from Hurricane Charley 18 years ago, it does make you stop and take stock of what is essential in life.
I recently had the opportunity again to be part of a unique team of volunteers assembled by Punta Gorda Police Officer Joe Angelini that hosted 51 foster families and 144 foster children to a holiday luncheon. This touching holiday event started seven years ago, a year after Joe became a resource officer at Sally Jones Elementary School. Always having had a special place in his heart for children, Joe recounts how the school principal asked him if he would take a little first-grade boy named Lucas under his wing. Joe agreed that the department would put him back patrolling the streets the following year, which was part of his service to the community he enjoyed. Little did Joe know the impact this child would have on him.
At the principal’s request, she asked if Joe would make time to have lunch with this young boy to build a bond and see if he could find out the cause of Lucas’ deviant behavior. Joe said at first he was puzzled why a child this age would exhibit such an incidence of this kind of behavior, but as Lucas opened up to Joe, he shared how he had bounced back in forth between 10 foster homes in Lee in Charlotte Counties in one year. It was then Joe realized this boy needed more stability and a bit of a father figure and confidant. Joe started to take Lucas off campus to places like McDonald’s, where he could experience some of the pleasures children in a more normalized home setting enjoyed. Through their time together, Joe gained an intimate insight into how children in Lucas’ situation were starving for a permanent place they could call home.
While we reminisced what it was like growing up and coming down Christmas morning to see the brightly colored presents Santa brought us the night before, Joe felt an emotional tug at his heart. He saw how the holidays often accentuated the transient hand these children were dealt. Despite the best efforts, these foster families were trying to provide the love and stability the children lacked. Joe felt these families and children needed more than a holiday lunch. They needed something where memories were made. He met with Pastor Tim Buck of First Methodist Church in Punta Gorda, now New Life Church, along with various community leaders and restauranteurs, and the groundwork was established. Hearing what Joe was planning, an elderly lady in the community anonymously provided presents for each one of the children. Joe confided, “She provided, and the Christmas Elves wrapped.”
Hearing of Joe’s love for these children, the Children’s Network of Florida has reached out to Joe with children and families in desperate need of holiday cheer that will carry them throughout the New Year. Joe told them, “If you know of a child in need, share that with us, and we’ll make sure their Christmas is a bit more special.”
Over these seven years, this 14-year Veteran of the Punta Gorda Police force has created an event to remember. The buffet-style luncheon is more like a feast with fresh roasted turkey and enough side dishes and desserts to feed an army. The food is delivered to the homeless shelter if anything is left over. After lunch, the children are treated to take part in a photo booth, a cookie decorating station, and one where they can create their ice cream sundaes. Of course, what holiday event would be complete without a personal visit and picture with Santa? Local musicians play holiday music throughout the event in the background, along with various festive decorations and lighted Christmas trees. It is a beautiful setting to behold. However, the best is yet to come.
Upon leaving, each child receives 3-4 personal gifts to take home, and the foster parents receive a festive holiday bag with all the side dish staples and a gift certificate to Publix for a turkey that will feed up to a family of twelve for a beautiful Christmas dinner.
I’ve often wondered what gives us the most satisfaction in life and as I’ve grown older it isn’t the presents I’ve received, it is the joy of giving, and the look of surprise on someone’s face that gives me the most pleasure. As I walked around the sea of tables, clearing them so the church could set up for their service the following morning, a couple of the children asked if they could clear the tables with me. To see these little ones that weren’t more than ten years of age wearing adult disposable gloves and clearing the tables with me spoke volumes about how grateful they were. They had no idea how much they touched my heart.
As Joe and I sat together recapping the day’s events, he said, “Gary, I think about this event every day of the year and how we can make it better and touch the lives of more families and children.” I thought, “You didn’t just make their lives better; you made mine better as well.” I was given the opportunity to give, and to me, that was priceless.
As the holidays quickly approach, we want to send our best wishes to you and your family for all the happiness this season brings, and that not only will you be blessed in the New Year, but so will the lives of others whose lives you touch.