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Special delivery for children affected by Irma – Citizen

December 21, 2017

ROB O'NEAL/The Citizen Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter residents help wrap Christmas presents for the 'Operation Irma Big Pine Key Santa Claus Event.'

ROB O’NEAL/The Citizen Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter residents help wrap Christmas presents for the ‘Operation Irma Big Pine Key Santa Claus Event.’

Santa Claus will trade in his sleigh for a fire engine this weekend to surprise 32 Big Pine Key children hit hardest by Hurricane Irma.

Members of the Monroe County Firefighters Benevolent Association will visit 11 families, nominated by the community, on Friday and Saturday, surprising the children with gifts they asked for from Santa, according to organizer Herve Thomas.

Firefighters will visit the houses first under the guise of a routine check, talking to the kids and asking them their names. Once identified, they will radio to Santa in the truck, who will bring the gifts.

“It’s going to be a riot,” Thomas said.

Toys, bikes and scooters are among the gifts, which also include a mini- recliner requested by a child who wants to relax like his dad, Thomas said.

The idea for the giveaway began on the Irma Big Pine Key Facebook page, which Thomas set up shortly after the storm to give residents a place to connect. About a month ago, a Christmas discussion started and Thomas decided to organize a giveaway.

“It was so obvious that I just formulated what everyone was thinking,” he said.

Thomas asked the community to nominate the children of three families hit the hardest, but response was so great the number quickly grew to 12 families and 32 children.

“The response was…way bigger than what I thought,” he said. “We ended up with a huge response from the public.”

Over 60 donors responded, with several offering to sponsor an entire family.

Bucktooth Rooster restaurant will provide a Christmas cake and meeting spot for several families who are staying outside Big Pine due to home loss from Irma and the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League wrapped the presents with help from clients.

Although Keys Overnight Temporary Shelter resident William Messick hadn’t wrapped a present in many years, he said it was like riding a bike and was happy to provide assistance.

“It’s a good thing to do for the kids that don’t have,” Messick said. “Got to do something good for the kids.”

SHAL Deputy Executive Director Elicia Pintabona saw the discussion on Facebook and looked for a way to help, she said.

“I saw a need and a way that we could give back to the community too,” Pintabona said. “Our clients have limited ways that they can give back but giving their time is a good way. These are kids that lost everything.”

The event couldn’t happen without the help of county Fire Chief Jim Callahan and Deputy Chief Steve Hudson, who provided a fire engine for Santa to deliver the goods and the outpouring of support from community members, which Thomas called “phenomenal.”

“It was huge man, incredible input from the people,” he said.