HOLLYWOOD/IMMOKALEE — From room to room and floor to floor, the gifts of new toys lit up young faces at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood thanks to the Seminole Tribe Board’s annual toy drive.
President Mitchell Cypress, Hollywood Board Rep. Gordon Wareham and Santa Claus spent hours Dec. 8 distributing dozens of toys to patients ranging from nine days to 19 years old. Each child was given an age appropriate gift as large boxes filled with toys were hauled through the hospital hallways with assistance from the president’s staff, Seminole Fire Rescue and Hollywood Boys & Girls Club.
“Give it to the children in the hospital who might not be able to make it home for Christmas; some might go home early with a smile on their face,” said President Cypress, who added that the toy drive is one way the Tribe can show its support in the local community, which in a way supports the Tribe through the casinos.
Brianna, 11, glowed when she was given a toy by President Cypress from The Little Pony series.
“It’s really good. It’s from the movie,” she said.
Another girl named Brianna, this one age 9, smiled as Rep. Wareham gave her a Bratz doll on the day before her birthday.
“That was awesome,” Brianna’s mother said.
Brandon Large, 11, was given a football by Rep. Wareham.
“I love it. They were awesome to do that,” said Brandon, a New England Patriots fan.
The benefits for the annual toy drive are reciprocal.
“It brightens up my day,” President Cypress said. “If I can be able to help put a smile on a kid’s face, that’s my reward.”
The toy drive also extended to the western side of Alligator Alley. About 700 Immokalee children had a Christmas filled with toys thanks to the toy drive.
Nearly all of Eden Park Elementary school’s 683 students qualify for the federal government’s free and reduced price lunch program, an indicator of low family income. Many of the parents work in the fields of Immokalee, but Hurricane Irma destroyed the crops and delayed the next one causing families to lose significant income.
Donned in cheerful Santa hats, on Dec. 12 Hollywood Board representative Gordon Wareham, Naples Council liaison Brian Zepeda, Board staff and members of We Do Recover filled the school’s lobby with about 700 toys and games, snacks, candy canes, pencils and love as students from every classroom came by to choose a present.
Mouths agape, the children were surprised and delighted to see the bounty of colorful gifts. Some were drawn immediately to that perfect toy; others were more deliberate as they carefully chose. The piles of age and gender appropriate toys were continually replenished so each child had a huge array of choices.
“We are bringing happiness,” Rep. Wareham said. “There’s a kid who’s in need and we’re filling that need.”
Rep. Wareham recounted an interaction with a patient who turned 7 years old on the day the toy drive visited Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. Rep. Wareham said the boy was abandoned by his parents, so he and Santa entered his room singing Jingle Bells. They gave him a Christmas present and an additional birthday present, causing the boy’s eyes to tear up as he got his wish.
“That will stay with me for the rest of my life,” Rep. Wareham said. “That’s the gift I got back and it’s more than money can buy.”
The volunteers at Eden Park knew the already impoverished town had been hit with hard times and did their best to bring holiday cheer to the children.
“Service is always what we do,” said Charlie Tiger, We Do Recover program supervisor. “It feels a lot different now because this is a public school with kids who aren’t tribal members. They don’t have the resources we have so it feels really good to help them.”
“It’s a blessing to be able to help these kids and give them a good Christmas, especially since Hurricane Irma,” added Billie Tiger.
Many of Eden Park’s students were told by their parents not to expect Christmas presents.
“Some of these kids wouldn’t have had gifts at all this year,” said Principal Linda Salazar. “This is unexpected and so joyful.”
Over at the overflowing toy tables, it was hard to tell who got the most joy- the givers or the receivers. Happiness filled the lobby as adults and children alike wore big smiles and enjoyed the morning.
“It’s very touching for the Tribe to donate to this,” said Immokalee Council project manager Ray Garza. “Not a lot of people have been as lucky as us and I’ve always believed we have to share and give back. It’s heartwarming to see these kids get a toy.”