NORTH TAMPA – Several weeks ago, 13-year-old Tevin T. was told by his mom not to expect a visit from Santa.
But the bounty of gifts he received during a recent holiday party in the gymnasium of the Dorothy Thomas Exceptional Center – where he attends school – more than made up for it.
Thanks to the leadership and big-heartedness of Kiki Dahlke, as well as numerous other donors, Tevin and close to 50 of his classmates – including youngsters living in nearby Hillsborough County Children’s Service’s emergency shelter cottages – received a huge bagful of gifts from multiple Santas.
Inside Tevin’s oversized bag was a leather baseball glove and a pair of Nike sneakers, both of which were the very items he’d scribbled on his Christmas wish list. Also tucked inside were several popular guy gadgets, a school uniform, some T-shirts, socks, underwear, a myriad of toiletries and a snack pack.
“This is really cool,” Tevin beamed. “I feel gratitude.”
Across the room was 14-year-old Jonnetria “Kayla” H., whose eyes got wider and her smile broader with every item she pulled out from her overflowing bag of gifts.
“It’s wonderful. I never dreamed I’d get so much neat stuff,” she said.
Dorothy Thomas principal Merrill Fallis, whose first through 12th grade public school serves youngsters with emotional and behavioral disabilities, said her student body is composed of children who’ve been abused, abandoned, neglected or come from underprivileged families.
“Some have never experienced people being nice to them,” she said.
Dahlke founded what she dubbed the Adopt-an-Angel program 15 years ago after attending a party for children living in the emergency shelters. In addition to procuring annual contributions from Coca-Cola’s Shared Services Department in Brandon and Coca-Cola’s Customer Development Department in Temple Terrace, the Judy Kincaid family, Melissa Watermolen and Remax realtor Katerina Villa Garcia, she also enlisted the assistance of her two sons – Kody, 18, and Travis, 14.
In turn Kody, a senior at Wharton High School where he is president of the Scholarship Club and vice president of the Beta Club, garnered the enthusiasm of fellow members of both clubs to raise money for the purchase the youngsters’ holiday party snack packs and collect Walmart and McDonald’s gift cards to award the monthly winners of Dorothy Thomas’ positive character-trait program.
A portion of the money raised by the Wharton students also was donated to various other area charities.
“Since I was really little she’s taken me along and I’ve helped out and expanded it from there,” Kody said.
Fallis is grateful for everyone’s contributions for the holiday party but is especially appreciative of the Dahlke family’s level of involvement.
“What I think is so wonderful is how Mrs. Dahlke has invigorated the high school students,” she said. “It’s a terrific service learning activity for them.”
Wharton senior Wilney Moliere, a member of the school’s scholarship club, was there with several of her fellow club buddies.
“When I was little I didn’t have much so I think it’s nice to support these kids,” she said.
Junior Patrick Romo, a native of the Philippines, concurred.
“I just want to help make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.
John Rose, a 23-year paraprofessional at the Dorothy Thomas center, said the party was the “only Christmas” many of the students experience.
“Here the gratification of helping these kids is awesome,” he said. “A lot have family issues and so we try to make their experience here the best it can be.”
Dahlke said the students deserve every bit of what she and others can provide for them.
“A lot of these kids have never had anything given to them,” she said. “We are a very blessed family so it’s a joy to give back.”
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.