Roseanne Stocker used to drive the back roads of central Florida to get to Tampa. Along the way almost two decades ago she drove through Pierson and Seville and was taken aback by the level of poverty she saw—single-wide trailers with no windows and no heat in winter in a community defined by the low-paying fern-growing industry and its labor force of immigrants.
Stocker asked faculty at the school in Pierson if the children had means of getting Christmas present. The answer was no. She asked if the school would help coordinate a way to ensure that some children would, if she could get the toys to the school. That answer was yes. “I came home and I said we’ve got to do something.”
She had children of her own: 2, 6 and 9. But she “adopted” 30 children in Pierson and Seville and got to work raising money and finding toys for them. “I knew that if my friends and neighbors back in Flagler saw what I saw, they would help,” Stocker said. They did. And then it was her and her late dad, Jeremiah Buckley, their cars turned sleighs.
Stocker didn’t know it as that at the time—she wasn’t even in Rotary yet—but that’s how Project Share was born. And that’s how it began to grow, year after year, poverty being an unforgiving, always-yielding crop.
Last year Project Share provided Christmas presents for 1,1000 children. This year, as three big box trucks and five trailers were filled from a hangar at the Flagler County airport Wednesday afternoon, with the help of some 150 volunteers (just over a 10th of the total number of volunteers who chipped in) Project Share is providing presents for 1,300 children.
It’s long been a signature project of the Flagler Beach Rotary, growing into likely the second-largest Christmas provider after Toys For Tots: the math is simple: 1,300 children of $30 to $50 per child, not counting a couple of hundred bicycles. That adds up to $39,000 to $65,000 in donations, with the Rotary itself playing a big role. Its First Friday food vending—its sausages and peppers are sought after—generates $700 to $1,000 a month, for example. Businesses contribute. Individuals contribute. And every year there’s enough to make the project grow.
It’s designed to make a realistic connection between the donor and the child, at least to the extent that the donor knows there’s a real person behind the “stars” that hang from trees, such as at Walmart, and that donors adopt to provide for: the stars are like a profile of each child, profiles drawn up in two nightly sessions Rotarians have with parents in Pierson to know more precisely who they’ll be collecting for.
It’s part of a delicate registration process. Families, Stocker said, “are so in need and in the vast majority of cases are so humbled and grateful that you’re there, and as Rotarians, our mission is to help the most vulnerable people no matter where they may be. So I think the way we approach it, with the dignity that we constantly strive to approach this with, it gives the families a comfort level when they’re talking with us.” As for Stocker herself, she’s been at it so long that some of the families are on their second generation through. It’s helped establish a level of trust, and it helps with insights into the children’s profiles.
“When you adopt one of our children at Christmas,” Stocker said, “you know their age, all of their wishes, their sizes. So the volunteers and the people who donate to Project Share really like the fact that they know this child really exists and really has specific wishes that they’re able to fulfil.”
There are other careful touches along the way. The toys are distributed to the parents. The children don’t know where the gifts have come from: it’s another way to preserve the sense that it’s the parents’ doing, not anybody else’s. “We specifically tell the parents not to bring their children to the pick-ups so if they want it to be from them on Christmas morning, they have that choice,” Stocker said.
Various churches and schools adopt hundreds of children each. The Flagler Beach Rotary ends up with responsibility for teens, who are much more difficult to buy for. so we do a lot of gift cards,” says Rotarian Tim O’Donnell.
“I’ll tell you that the teen that Dalton, Tyler and I adopted,” says Cindy Dalecki, also a Rotarian, “a 14-year-old boy,” Dalecki said, “he wanted a belt, pants and cologne. So he’s not asking for 360 Xbox stuff. He’s asking for basic necessities, really.”
The Rotary also sweeps up every start left behind. “As we speak there are still stars on the tree at Walmart and those children will never be adopted,” Stocker said. “We use the toys that come in as general donations as well as the cash donations we receive to supplement and make sure that no child was left out.”
What makes it all work in the end are the volunteers, especially as the toys are ready to package and prepare for delivery. Epic Church sends an army of volunteers to help with packing. The youth group from Santa Maria del Mar sends its own platoons. So does Project Warm, the program at Stewart-Marchman-Act Behavioral Healthcare. St. Brandon Catholic Church in Ormond Beach, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Palm Coast, Father Lopez Catholic Church in Daytona Beach, St. Joe’s Catholic Church and school in St. Augustine, Matanzas High School’s Interact (the high school equivalent of Rotary) all send many volunteers.
That’s how an airport hangar became North Pole central Wednesday, after Airport Director Roy Sieger—a soon-to-be president of the Flagler Beach Rotary—provided the hangar as a staging ground for Project Share. From there, the trucks were to leave at 7:45 this morning and deliver the goods at Pierson Elementary, where some 50 farmworkers were expected to unload and help with the distribution to parents.
For the Flagler Beach Rotary, the connection with Pierson goes much further than a once-a-year contribution, sizeable as it may be. Every month the Rotary distributes food at San Jose Catholic Mission Church in Pierson, in partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank, which has a program called the Global Food Drive to target the most unreserved areas in this part of Florida. The partnership with the Rotary, one of several, is a new way to get into areas that lack food pantries.
The Rotary for four years used to buy food for eventual distribution in Pierson, helping 25 families the first year, growing to 95 families. When Second Harvest heard of the project—through Pastor Charles Silano of Grace Tabernacle Pantry in Palm Coast—they offered the partnership, sending a huge truck with high-quality food. Rotary supplies all the volunteers, including Matanzas High School’s Interact club members.
And as with Project Share, the needs never cease.
Tax-deductible monetary donations for Project Share may be made out to Project Share and mailed to the Flagler Beach Rotary, P.O. Box 2005, Flagler Beach, FL 32136-2005. Your donations will be applied to next year’s edition of Project Share.