Charities gear up for holiday giving

Frank Gulla, of Village Rio Ranchero, carries a donated bicycle as a volunteer for Toys for Tots.

It may only be September, but area charities and organizations already are getting ready for the holidays. Soon there will be donation boxes and angel trees stationed in The Villages and throughout surrounding communities. But organizations need more than just gifts. Volunteers are necessary, too, and now is the time to get involved. A number of local groups are looking for help.

Help the Military

The holidays can be an especially lonely time for U.S. service members deployed around the world.

It is the mission of Operation Shoebox to bring a little cheer to their lives.

Each year, Camille Gieck, director of Operation Shoebox in The Villages, and her team of volunteers sew stockings and fill them with handwritten cards, comics, puzzles, candy, food, hygiene items, stationary and more to bring a few comforts from home to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and guardsmen serving the nation.

“There are always a few seats for those who wish to volunteer, but this year we especially need money,” said Gieck, of the Village of Chatham.

She said the group sent more than 7,500 stockings overseas one year. At $4 to $5 per stocking, shipping costs can quickly add up.

Bonnie White, treasurer of Operation Shoebox in The Villages and Belleview, said the group spent $145,000 on postage in 2017 and $116,000 in 2018. So far this year, Operation Shoebox has spent $36,000 on postage.

“Due to the decrease in donations, our income has gone down, and it’s reflected in the postage funds,” White said.

Operation Shoebox is doing all it can to raise money, including hosting several events.

There will be a wristband fundraiser Sept. 11 at Havana Country Club. The event is open to the public, and admission is $5. There will be hors d’ oeuvres and entertainment included, with happy hour-priced drinks available for purchase.

There also will be a Chinese auction Sept. 21 and a dinner dance Oct. 5 at SeaBreeze Recreation Center.

Bingo also is held the first Monday of each month to benefit the organization. And a drive for items will be held at Sam’s Club in Lady Lake over two weekends in October.

Those who wish to donate can attend an event or mail a check made out to Operation Shoebox, 17481 SE 76th Flintlock Terrace, The Villages, FL 32162.

To volunteer with the group, attend the 12:30 p.m. meeting Sept. 16 at Lake Miona Recreation Center.

Help Local Children and Families

The Col. Phillip C. DeLong Marine Corps League Detachment 1267 is preparing for its annual Marine Toys for Tots drive, which benefits needy children in Lake and Sumter counties.

The group is holding its 17th Annual Toys for Tots Golf Classic on Saturday at Havana Country Club.

Nathan Pratt, coordinator of the golf classic, said some foursome and single spots are still available. Anyone interested in playing can call Pratt at 904-553-3500 for more details.

“We try to grow it each year,” he said. “There are more and more people in need, and a lot of people could use the help.”

Anyone who wants to volunteer for the Toys for Tots drive should attend the kickoff meeting for all campaign volunteers at 9 a.m. Sept. 30 at Bacall Recreation Center. There are opportunities to help in the warehouse with bagging, assembling, installing batteries, hauling items, picking up boxes and more.

Donation boxes will be placed at every recreation center in The Villages and at many local stores beginning in mid-October. Any business or organization can request a donation box by calling Bill Ward, this year’s campaign manager, at 352-689-2012.

He said the Marine Corps League welcomes all donations, but there is a large need for toys for kids ages 3 and under and from 10 to 12. He said they do not need many stuffed toys because they get plenty each year.

“There are so many great charities here in The Villages, but the kids are important,” Ward said. “There’s a lot of poverty around here. (The Florida Department of Children and Families) knows its clients and knows that the people picking up applications are quite needy. Those wanting to donate would be helping to make a nice Christmas for those who otherwise may not have a Christmas.”

Last year, Detachment 1267 served about 3,000 families, with an average of three children per family.

The Girl Scout Alumnae Silver Trefoil Group of The Villages also is in need of donations this season.

The group’s annual Pajama and Book Drive begins Oct. 1, and red donation boxes will be stationed at all recreation centers in The Villages.

“There will also be many events throughout the donation season that will offer free admission or door prize entries for bringing a book or pajamas,” said Judy Schober, who handles marketing for the Silver Trefoils.

Last year, more than 6,000 pairs of pajamas and nearly 3,000 books were collected, and members of the group are looking forward to providing even more to those in need.

Donations are distributed to children across Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.

Local Girls Scouts often help the group, but volunteers are welcome. Previous Girl Scout experience is not required to volunteer or be a member of the group.

To get involved, attend the Silver Trefoils’ next meeting at 3 p.m. Sept. 23 at Laurel Manor Recreation Center or call Schober at 630-640-5386.

The Salvation Army is looking for volunteers, too.

The organization’s red kettle bell ringers will be back in November.

Volunteer bell ringers are stationed at local businesses through Christmas Eve, and they raise about $30 an hour, according to The Salvation Army.

Registration to become a local bell ringer starts in October. To get involved, visit

The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program also begins in mid-November.

Donate toys to the program at boxes throughout the community, or choose a tag off an Angel Tree.

Last year, The Salvation Army of Lake and Sumter Counties assisted more than 700 families in the area.

“We are always looking for volunteers for food packing for holiday dinners and to help out at the warehouse for Angel Tree distribution,” said Maj. Marie Harris, the organization’s volunteer coordinator.

For more information, call 352-365-0079.

The Villages Recreation and Parks Department hosts a similar program called Angels of The Villages in conjunction with Lake Sumter Families Inc.

The 2019 holiday season marks the 27th consecutive year the organizations have worked together to brighten the holidays for local families and foster children.

“There are a lot of families and children that benefit from this,” said Lisa Parkyn, lifestyles event manager with the recreation department. “That will become very evident when people see the big trucks roll by full of gifts to be delivered as the holidays draw near.”

This year’s collection is scheduled to run from Nov. 4 to Dec. 6. Angels will be placed on holiday trees at Colony Cottage, Eisenhower, La Hacienda, Lake Miona, Laurel Manor, Mulberry Grove, Rohan and Fenney recreation centers. Each angel is connected with a family or foster child.

To donate, choose an angel and fulfill the wishes attached.

The Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake is sponsoring its Shop With A Cop program again this December, as well as several other programs that help needy families in the area.

During Shop With A Cop, police officers take children on a shopping spree at a local store.

“We will take as many volunteers as will come,” said Deb Tinsley, secretary of the Kiwanis Club and a Village of Calumet Grove resident. “We’d like to have one volunteer for every police officer to push the carts around and assist the police officer and child, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Tinsley said The Kiwanis Club also will be needing people to adopt children from local schools for the holidays and provide holiday meals for needy families.

For more information, call Tinsley at 352-259-8584 or attend a Kiwanis Club meeting, which takes place the first, third and fourth Thursday of the month at the Lady Lake Community Building.

Help Yourself, Too

Generosity and compassion have been a focal point of research for decades, and studies have consistently shown that improved mood, better physical health and increased longevity are connected to giving — whether it’s monetary donations or volunteer hours invested on the weekend.

When it comes to your health, it truly is better to give than to receive.

“Giving gifts is psychologically beneficial for the gift-giver,” said Ellen J. Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. “Giving a gift is empowering and boosts your self-esteem.”

Researchers also think giving back might give individuals a mental boost by providing them with a neurochemical sense of reward.

“The feel-good effects of giving begin in the brain,” said Stephen G. Post, director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at New York’s Stony Brook University. “It’s called ‘giver’s glow.’”

The response, Post said, is triggered by brain chemistry in the mesolimbic pathway, which recognizes rewarding stimuli.

“Philanthropy doles out several different happiness chemicals, including dopamine, endorphins that give people a sense of euphoria; and oxytocin, which is associated with tranquility, serenity or inner peace,” Post said.

Whether you’re giving time, money or a helping hand, you stand to receive the stress-busting benefits of altruism. But your intentions and how you feel about the action matter.

“If it’s a meaningful donation, it can have a significant impact,” Post said. “But if it’s trivial or just grudging ... probably not.”

Post said meaningful giving, or even contemplating heartfelt generosity, takes your focus off yourself and things that may weigh you down from day to day. Writing a check in hopes of lessening your stress without thought as to where the money is going likely won’t be as effective as giving from the heart.

“When giving selflessly, people say their friendships are deeper, they’re sleeping better and they’re able to handle life’s obstacles better,” Post said. “On a scale of one to 10 — and 10 is a really powerful drug like insulin in the treatment of diabetes — this stuff is probably up there around a seven or eight. And the amazing thing is, you don’t need to go to a drugstore for it.”

Staff writer Laura Sikes contributed material to this report. She can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or at Staff writer Monique Meeks can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5387, or at