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President’s Toy Drive brings holiday joy throughout state

By: Analicia Austin and Beverley Bidney

The Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc.’s annual President’s Toy Drive brought holiday generosity – and plenty of toys – to children in multiple counties stretching from Hollywood to South Bay to Immokalee.

The toy drive arrived at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood on Dec. 10. Accompanied by Santa Claus, Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie was among the Seminole dignitaries who delivered gifts, much to the delight of the young patients who ranged in age from newborn to 17.

“It’s amazing. I’m so honored to be here,” Blais-Billie said. “The kids are so welcoming to us. I was nervous that we might be annoying to them or something, but they’re all really excited to see us. It’s really heartwarming and really getting me into the Christmas spirit.”

Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie and Hollywood Board Rep. Gordon Wareham present a Seminole beeded necklace to a young patient Dec. 10 at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood. (Photo Analicia Austin)

Zooey Hunt, 7, was all smiles as she was presented a traditional Seminole blanket along with a beaded necklace that Blais-Billie explained were medicinal beads that bring health and healing qualities.

Zooey’s mother was surprised by the visit.

“I think it’s awesome. It’s sweet, and not expected,” she said.

The Seminole gift-giving entourage included Hollywood Board Rep. Gordon Wareham.

“It’s actually giving back to the people that need it, especially during this holiday season,” he said.

The toy drive also extended to Rosenwald Elementary School in South Bay on Dec. 17.

“[The students] don’t know that they’re coming today, we didn’t tell them, and they’re going to be super excited,” said assistant principal Myra Matthew.

Seminole Fire Rescue Lt. Todd Graham helps deliver toys at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. (Photo Analicia Austin)

The school has about 340 kids from kindergarten to the fifth grade. This was the second year they were recipients of the Seminole toy drive.

Tribal members arranged the boxes full of toys for each age group and made sure they didn’t run out of goodies.

Matthew called the whole experience a blessing as some of the children “usually never anticipate getting gifts, some of the kids families struggle, and this is really like a blessing for them.”

Toys delivered to kids at
Guadalupe Center in Immokalee

Helped by some “elves” from the We Do Recover program, President Mitchell Cypress delivered 12 extra-large boxes filled with new toys Dec. 19 to the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee.

“We’ve been helping out for a couple of years,” said Charlie Tiger, We Do Recover program supervisor. “We like doing service work. Making children smile makes us feel good.”

The group came by a truck, no reindeer required, from Hollywood with a trailer filled with toys.

Members of We Do Recover and President Mitchell Cypress pose with staff of the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee as they deliver gifts for the children Dec. 19. From left are Stanley Cypress, Jay Holata, Kenneth Tommie, Ellie Ramirez, President Cypress, Renate Engels, Charlie Tiger and Bob Spano. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Without a murmur of a ho, ho, ho they unloaded the boxes from the trailer and then took a tour of the Guadalupe campus.

“This means close to 400 families will have gifts for their children that they otherwise wouldn’t be getting,” said Bob Spano, vice president of programs, Guadalupe Center.

The Guadalupe Center’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty through education for the children of Immokalee.

The center provides educational programs for more than 1,300 children in Immokalee from infancy through high school.

The President’s Toy Drive began in 2007 and has been bringing toys to children ever since.

“I grew up in a rural area and didn’t have any toys,” President Cypress said.

Stanley Cypress and Kenneth Tommie unload boxes filled with Christmas presents for the children at the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“Our church gave us oranges and apples. Today’s world is different than it was back then, but in low income areas they can’t afford toys. I don’t want a kid to be without a Christmas present. I want them to have something that puts a smile on their faces.”

Guadalupe Center prides itself on its strong academic program in which 95 percent of its preschool students meet or exceed kindergarten readiness measures, 100 percent of the high school students who use the center’s Tutor Corps graduate and are accepted into college.

Of those students, more than 92 percent graduate with a post-secondary degree.

The preschool tuition is based on a sliding scale. The Immokalee community consists largely of low-wage farm workers, so most families pay little.

When some women find out they are pregnant, they put their unborn child on a waiting list for admission.

Third-grade girls at Rosenwald Elementary School pick out toys collected from the President’s Toy Drive. (Photo Analicia Austin)

There are about 500 on the waiting list already. The school takes babies at 6 weeks old.

The preschool requires parents to work or go to school full-time and they must attend eight parent meetings per year, which often have guest speakers.

“This is a good program for people who want to help themselves and their families,” said We Do Recover member Kenneth Tommie.

The program began in 1984 when a sister at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Immokalee saw a need for migrant worker’s children.

She had influential friends, raised some money and started a preschool. The school, however, is not affiliated with the church but kept the name anyway.

Miss Florida Seminole Durante Blais-Billie and Santa bring holiday cheer to a young patient at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital. (Photo Analicia Austin)

Keeping with its emphasis on education, the center is about to begin a new program called Smart Start, for mothers and their babies.

“I get offended when people call us a day care,” said Renate Engels, director of early childhood development. “We have 17 teachers with bachelor degrees, are accredited by all the major organizations and teachers write curriculums every week.”

In addition to the preschool on its spacious campus, which was built in 2006 and 2008, Guadalupe has an after school program which serves 840 students in Immokalee schools.

Students at Rosenwald Elementary School in South Bay have plenty of toys to choose from Dec. 17 thanks to the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc.’s annual President’s Toy Drive. (Photo Analicia Austin)