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Island charities work to bring joy and hope to needy families and residents

By Staff | Dec 17, 2009

“It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air” – W. T. Ellis

One woman who lives on Sanibel is a single mom in her 30s. She works in a service industry and is raising four children. Though her day-to-day struggle to live and support her children is a constant, she hopes that things can be special and magical for her children on Christmas.

Then there is the Sanibel man dying with a terminal disease. His wife does not work so that she can care for him. Since neither spouse can work their house just got foreclosed. They have a teenaged child.

Oh, yeah – one more thing it’s also Christmas time – the period of overeating, indulging, festive parties, sparkly decorations and presents – the stuff of intact, healthy families with jobs to pay for it all.

But with a challenged economy and a locale filled with high unemployment and few prospects for decent paying jobs, some island residents in both the service industry and professional world find themselves bereft of hope during the holidays.

The stories of need and despair fill the ears and days of local charity leaders Maggi Feiner of Friends in Service Here (FISH) and Tom Louwers of Friends Who Care.

But Feiner, who is the president of FISH, and Louwers, the program coordinator of Friends Who Care, Inc., are working hard with other volunteers to ensure all of the island’s needy wake up to a good Christmas this year.

In what can best be described as a concerted effort between those two agencies as well as the Kiwanis, Rotary, the Lions Club and other charities and churches no one should go without a festive holiday.

For about a month Friends Who Care organize an island toy drive so that every child will have a present to unwrap on Christmas. Christmas trees are located around the island so that people can donate an unwrapped present beneath it. Many volunteers have joined Friends Who Care in the gift collection program, located at the Sanibel Post Office, Fire Station #1, City Hall, The Garden Club, ABWA, The Dunes Golf & Tennis Club, The Senior Center, Sanibel & Captiva Community Bank, Bank of the Islands, St. Isabel’s Woman’s Club, Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ and Zonta.

This year, RLR Investments, LLC, is joining the cause with Friends Who Care trees at Tahitian Gardens, The Village Shops and The Olde Sanibel Shoppes. Friends Who Care trees can also be found at The Sanctuary Golf Club.

After the gifts are collected and wrapped by Kiwanis of Sanibel & Captiva members and volunteers, during their 36th annual “Santa Run ” Kiwanis will deliver all the gifts designated for Friends Who Care children and seniors on the island on the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 23. Over 100 children and more than 30 seniors receive gifts from Friends Who Care.

“We’re the biggest contributor for gifts on Christmas,” Louwers said. “We just touch a lot of people.”

Friends Who Care is a nearly 30-year non-profit whose primary mission is to help folks get food and school supplies, Louwers said. They work closely with FISH to make sure needy residents do not do without food and have a chance to enjoy the holidays. They have noticed a spike in need since the economy tumbled. The organization will help about 150 people on the islands have a Merry Christmas.

But Sanibel and Captiva is not particularly known for its poverty or people going hungry. “People want to know where all these needy people are on Sanibel,” Louwers said.

They are the ones who wait on you in the restaurants, buff your nails and manicure your lawns. But need has also increased in the professional middle class ranks as well. Many have lost jobs due to the recession and some have become afflicted with life-endangering and/or terminal illnesses, Feiner said.

“It’s a hard time,” she continued. “This downturn has hit everyone.”

But conversely, since the tough times resonate with so many, more help is pouring forth.

FISH manages a client load of about 500 annually. During the holidays FISH staff round up enough turkeys and hams so that everyone can have a full belly.

This holiday the organization is seeking donors to help families through their Adopt-A-Family program. Donors can elect to help individual families with specific hardships and needs.

And the response to the need is generous.

“I do think people are being more generous this year,” Feiner said.

And the act of giving help seems is just as important for the giver as it the receiver.

“It’s just like the movie ‘Pay it Forward’,” Louwers said. “You help someone else so that hopefully someone else can help someone else back.”

Louwers said many clients – once on their feet again – come to help with charitable endeavors. “That’s what our reward is,” he said.

And with Christmas just a short time away, help is still needed to ensure everyone on the islands enjoys a special holiday. Hams and turkeys are needed at FISH. And Friends Who Care is collecting presents up until Christmas Eve. For more information, call Louwers at 472-5152 or Feiner at 472-4775.

Kettle drives for the Salvation Army are also happening on Sanibel for those that want to help in that capacity. Clint Parsons, who organizes the Sanibel operation, said the bells will be ringing until Christmas Eve at Bailey’s and Jerry’s. At this point the organization is down between 20 to 30 percent this year in donations. “We need a little shot in the arm,” he said. “You’re helping people that need it.”

But there is one bright spot that makes this bellringer smile and shed a tear or two: he received a $5,000 check from a friend. Apparently the friend anonymously dropped the check in Parsons’ kettle.

But its those bright spots that help the island community jingle during rough times like these. It’s the fact that the Lions Club donates trees to needy people who would not otherwise have a Christmas tree. And it’s the newly married husband and wife who stopped by FISH recently to drop off a check to help the needy have a Merry Christmas.

And it’s the moms who receive gifts sending pictures of their children opening them that reinforce the need to be kind and help out. “It’s incredible to see the smiles,” Feiner said.

And it’s the fact that the family with the terminally ill dad and foreclosed home will have something sparkle aside from tears.

“There should be no person that is left out this Christmas,” Feiner said.