By Rachel Buxton
The Thanksgiving holiday dates back hundreds of years. Family and friends gather to give thanks for all their abundant blessings, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida is no different. The Tribe also tries to find different ways to give back throughout the year, especially during the holiday season.
But this Thanksgiving it was the Tribal youth who learned firsthand that Thanksgiving isn’t just about turkey and football, but that it is a time to help others.
On all reservations, the youth took charge and decided to do the giving back this year.
In Brighton, students at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School held a food drive the week before Thanksgiving.
“Each year, we collect food to donate to local church food pantries,” Charter School Administrative Assistant Michele Thomas said. “We try to educate our students to the sad reality of the many hungry people in our country and in our backyards.”
The Charter School set a goal to collect 1,000 cans or goods to help make a difference. The students far surpassed their goal, collecting a total of 1,690 items to donate to several food pantries.
“So proud of our students, staff and community,” teacher Renee Finney said. “Way to go, Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School.”
The students of the Charter School realized that just by donating a few cans, they helped families have a blessed Thanksgiving with meals on their tables.
“It’s part of our mission here at Pemayetv Emahakv Charter School to teach the art of giving and this is a great time of year to do that,” Thomas said. “Donating food to local food pantries in this season of giving is very rewarding.”
The Brighton youth weren’t the only ones to give back this Thanksgiving. The youth from Big Cypress, Immokalee and Naples learned the art of giving as well.
The Youth Council, sponsored by the Seminole Education Department, instituted a program to promote awareness of the needs of poverty-stricken, homeless and less fortunate individuals.
This year, they chose to do a food drive, and the event didn’t happen over night. The Youth Council spent two months organizing what became known as the 2011 Thanks Giving Back program. Education Adviser Carine Eugene and Higher Education Recruiter Luis Yeguez oversaw the drive.
Donation boxes were placed on the various reservations to collect the food for needy families. Door-to-door solicitation was also done.
On Nov. 19, members of the Youth Council and Tribal communities gathered at La Primera Iglesia Bautista de JesuCristo (The First Baptist Church of Jesus Christ) in Immokalee to distribute turkeys and tote bags filled to the top with nonperishable items.
The youth were amazed when they found out that families lined up outside since 6 a.m. even though the event started at 8 a.m.
The Seminole Education Department donated 100 turkeys to be given out. The young people also volunteered their services to the church by helping distribute clothes and household goods to those in need.
The crowd of more than 300 people showed appreciation with handshakes, hugs and words of thanks such as “Gracias,” “God sent you to us,” “You are angels” and “God bless you and your families.”
Volunteer Selena Perez, 16, said, “A little girl was rummaging through the tables so I asked if I could help her.”
Perez said, “She told me that she just wanted a necklace so that she could be like the other kids at school. She was so disappointed (not to find one) that I took off mine and put it around her neck.”
Volunteer Alexis Aguilar said, “It made us feel so good to see that little girl become excited and happy. You never realize how lucky you are until you see how much a simple little thing like that necklace can mean so much to someone who doesn’t have one.”
In just two hours, the volunteers had distributed all the turkeys and food packages. However, many people were still waiting in line, and the youth were heartbroken.
“We cannot give out what we do not have,” Education’s Yeguez explained to the youth. “All we can do is remember what we saw here and how it made us feel. Knowing that you can make a difference should help you make the right choices that will shape your future. You are the ones that can ensure that you are always on the giving side of the line and not the receiving end. Take home the valuable lessons that you have learned here today and put them to work for tomorrow.”
Along with the Youth Council, Seminole Police Department Officer Scotty Akins and members of the Explorer Program set up a grill to prepare hamburgers and hot dogs to hand out with cold drinks and snack packs to the long line of people.
They also donated two huge turkeys to the church for its Thanksgiving dinner buffet.
In addition, Youth from the Naples Community collected nonperishable food items at the Juanita Osceola Center.
On Nov. 21, the children and their parents delivered the donations to St. Matthew’s House. The organization offers a second chance to homeless people, broken families and people in recovery.
Those who attended were given a guided tour of the facilities at St. Matthew’s House. Its shelter offers dormitories for men and women as well as individual family rooms, a dining hall and common areas for rehabilitation activities.
The experience gave the youth another opportunity to see how fortunate they are. They were reminded that a simple gesture can make a huge difference in someone else’s life.
-Judy Weeks contributed to this article.
Photos by Judy Weeks and Carl Smith