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Toy drive benefits Southwest Florida kids

Kyla Billie, Holly Tiger, Sue Jane Cypress, Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers and President Mitchell Cypress join Golisano Children’s Hospital staff in the Fort Myers hospital lobby on Dec. 14. The toys were collected during the toy drive. (Beverly Bidney)

FORT MYERS — The Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc. and Seminole Veterans Toy Drive wrapped up a three-day event with more than 1,300 toys. The toy drive was held in a large tent at the corner of Stirling Road and U.S. 441 in Hollywood from Dec. 8-10. Most of the toys were destined for kids in Southwest Florida, an area that was ravaged by Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28.

Team members from the Seminole Classic Casino and the Seminole Coconut Creek Casino were among those from the Seminole Tribe’s gaming properties that brought carts full of toys to the toy drive’s kickoff.

“This year for me I think it’s special, the children that are going to receive these gifts are from my home, the southwest side of Florida,” said Edward Aguilar, general manager of the Seminole Classic Casino.

President Mitchell Cypress, who is also a veteran, said that it is important for the Seminole Tribe to be a part of the effort to bring joy and happiness to the youth impacted by Hurricane Ian. During a kickoff celebration in Hollywood, President Cypress was joined by Big Cypress Councilwoman Mariann Billie, former Miss Florida Seminole and Miss Indian World Cheyenne Kippenberger and U.S. Navy veteran Curtis Motlow.

“This is my first time attending but I am glad that we are gathering toys for the children that don’t get have the things that our children get to have,” Councilwoman Billie said.

The drive culminated with the delivery of the toys to kids in Southwest Florida, some of whom couldn’t be home for Christmas due to health issues. Santa Claus doesn’t always arrive in a reindeer-driven sleigh; on Dec. 14 a large truckload of toys was delivered to the Ronald McDonald House and Golisano Children’s Hospital, both in Fort Myers, and the Guadalupe Center in Immokalee.

Inspired by his childhood memories of Christmas, President Cypress started the toy drive when he served as chairman in 2007 and relaunched it in 2015 as president. His Christmas memories include looking forward to the fruit that the missionaries brought to his church.

“We want every kid to smile,” President Cypress said.

President Cypress was accompanied to Fort Myers and Immokalee by Big Cypress Board Rep. Nadine Bowers, executive assistant Sue Jane Cypress, President’s special adviser Holly Tiger and Okalee Village administrative assistant Kyla Billie.

Because of the triple threat of Covid-19, the respiratory virus known as RSV and the flu, the group wasn’t allowed to deliver the toys to the hospitalized children. Instead, the gifts were left with staff, who delivered them to the young patients later.

The Ronald McDonald House serves as a home for families – and provides all of their needs – while their child is in the nearby Golisano Children’s Hospital. Hurricane Ian disrupted the day-to-day routine of the hospital, which had to evacuate many patients including the neonatal intensive care unit. Hospital administrators were concerned donors wouldn’t be as generous with gifts this year.

“This was the largest donation we’ve had since Covid started,” said Stacie Kmetz, Golisano Children’s Hospital child-life specialist. “We are extremely appreciative.”

The Guadalupe Center aims to break the cycle of poverty through education and provides programs for the children of Immokalee from infancy through high school.

Reporter/intern Calvin Tiger contributed to this story.

Cheyenne Kippenberger, far left, Curtis Motlow, third from left in front, and President Mitchell Cypress, center, join Seminole Classic Casino employees, including general manager Edward Aguilar, at the site of the toy drive outside of the casino. (Kevin Johnson)
President Mitchell Cypress sits with Ronald McDonald and some of the toys from the toy drive to be delivered to the children at the Ronald McDonald House in Fort Myers. (Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at