A Community Christmas Carol

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)

RUSKIN - Last year at this time she volunteered to wrap donated presents for needy families. There was no indication that just a year later, she and her family would cross the spectrum from helping the less fortunate to becoming the less fortunate.

It is amazing how quickly life can be moved to the brink. Her husbandís steady, dependable job was eliminated, her hours were cut in half and the elimination of her own job loomed on the horizon. In what must have seemed to be a blink of an eye, a solid, middle class life was disrupted and the future suddenly looked bleak.

But then who in that position can look to the future? For people in that situation, dealing with the present is difficult enough.

That was the position of Ruskin resident Claudine Leger and her family. On Thanksgiving night, an already difficult situation was made worse by the theft of their family vehicle from their driveway. With no money to keep up the insurance payments and thousands of dollars owed on the vehicle, it was bad news on top of bad news.

But another story has emerged. A new chapter has unfolded that has given hope to a family that was losing hope and has spoken volumes about the people of South Hillsborough County.

The story of Al and Claudine Leger and their three young daughters was told in the Observer News on Dec. 4. The couple was hoping that someone could help them replace two car seats and a stroller that were destroyed when thieves burned their stolen vehicle. They didnít ask for anything else, they didnít expect the community to come forward with a helping hand.

But the community did just that.

"The phone started ringing at 7:15 on the Thursday morning the Observer came out," said Claudine Leger. Actually, the first call that I got was from Priscilla Mixon the night before the paper came out (Mickey and Priscilla Mixon are the owners of the Observer News).

By 10 a.m. that morning they had already been given the car seats and one of their daughterís teachers at Cypress Creek Elementary had donated a stroller.

But the calls kept coming in.

"Wilhelm Heating and Air Conditioning totally blew us away when Al Wilhelm called and offered us a 1996 Ford Aerostar mini van," said Leger. "It all happened in just the first few hours. It was just incredible."

Calls were coming in at such a rate that Leger needed some assistance. The Ruskin Chamber of Commerce agreed to act as a drop off point for donations.

"It was the least that we could do," said chamber executive director Suzy Lacey. "The cards and packages just kept coming and we are continuing to get cards. Claudine has given a lot to the community through volunteering and through her help with the Seafood Fest. All of this says a lot about her."

As Thursday became Friday the help kept coming in. "The Hillsborough County Sheriffís Office adopted the kids for the holidays," said Leger. A lady from Apollo Beach brought presents and a new diaper bag, a lady named Sandy Moore took me shopping at Wal-Mart."

And yet the calls kept coming. "The Interfaith Council really blew us away with their donation of $2,000," said Leger. "That really helped us get back on our feet. Al and I both cried when we saw their donation. I wrote them a letter telling them that they canít even begin to know how much their organization has helped us. It even brought back our faith. We hadnít been to church in quite a while but that following Sunday, we went back to church."

None of the donors seemed to even want a thank you for their generosity. At the Observer News, emails and phone calls arrived from people wanting to help, but not wanting to give their name.

"I sent thank you cards to everyone who was not anonymous," said Leger. "But then the people I sent thank you cards to would call me up and ask what else could they do to help. It was incredible. I just told them thank you, youíve done enough."

With the loss of both jobs and their family vehicle stolen, the future must have indeed looked bleak on that Thanksgiving night. "We were so down that Friday - that whole weekend was such a down time," Leger said. "We were wondering what would happen next. And then that following Thursday, everything turned around. I am so glad to live in this area. I never expected to receive all that we received. I truly feel blessed. This is what living in a small town is all about."

Help for the family poured in from all corners of South Hillsborough County including Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Riverview and Sun City Center. The Observer News received an email from someone stationed at MacDill in Tampa. He wanted to remain anonymous but needed the familyís address because the Pharmacy department at MacDill was taking up a collection.

And it has continued. "People dropped off everything," said Leger. "Towels and wrapping paper, underwear for the girls, candy canes and Christmas M&Ms and everyday things that cost money but sometimes you just donít have it. People sent us gift certificates to Wal-Mart and Publix and Kash Ďn Karry. A woman was down visiting her father in Sun City Center. He had just had surgery. She said that she didnít make a lot of money but she really wanted to help. She gave us a check for $100."

Some people even blacked out their names on the checks they sent. They didnít want a thank you, they just wanted to help out a family in need. "I would try to thank people but they would turn around and ask what else we needed," she said.

In the blink of an eye, a family was literally pushed to the brink. They didnít expect that their friends, neighbors and even perfect strangers would rush to their side. But that is exactly what happened.

"This is really hard for us - it is hard to accept these gifts," said Leger. "This is a weak point in our lives. Iíve never really...Iíve always tried to give. It was very difficult to be on the other end and to be in need. It was all very devastating when things happened and it would have been more so if the community had not been there for us."

Leger had a message for everyone - particularly the anonymous donors she wasnít able to thank personally. "Thank you very much for your generosity," she said. "It helped us out more than you will ever know. Not just financially but also emotionally and spiritually. When I say that I feel blessed, I truly feel blessed to live here."

But it has become more than just gifts. It has become a reminder for everyone involved of how valuable the people around us really are - friends and strangers alike. That reminder has even made its way down to Legerís daughter Kayla, a third grader at Cypress Creek Elementary.

Only recently, Claudine Leger found out that Kayla had written a story about their experience. "I wrote about caring," said Kayla. "She wrote an article in her third grade class about how she is thankful for all the very caring people and the caring people who donated a green mini van," Claudine said. "Usually she writes about horses or something like that!"

Leger had no idea that her daughter understood the situation with the family. Clearly Kayla now knows that people, some of whom she doesnít even know, care about her.

It is a Community Christmas Carol. A family suddenly finds themselves in trouble and people from all walks of life step forward to offer a helping hand. The family didnít ask for much, just a couple of car seats for their children but what they received was enormous. It was not just help in a monetary sense but also emotionally - friends and strangers alike were there for them in a time of need. The value of what they received could never be counted.

Seeing the response of so many caring people is something that has deeply struck everyone involved - from Al and Claudine Leger and their young children to the staff of the Chamber of Commerce to this reporter.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Top Photo by Mitch Traphagen
Bottom Photo by Claudine Leger

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