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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021 4 months ago

Casey Key woman's toy run goes into overdrive

Julie DeRice organizes the Casey Key Toy Drive each year.
by: Harry Sayer Staff Writer

Julie DeRice works hard during the holidays.

She doesn’t have to. She and her husband Andrew have had successful careers in real estate and now enjoy retirement in their home on Casey Key.

All the same, DeRice finds herself organizing a team of volunteers every December for an important mission — fundraising, buying presents from stores and distributing them to dozens of children and families through the Salvation Army. 

She and her neighbors raise tens of thousands of dollars for the drive — they’ve reached a new high this year with $25,000 raised. 

It comes from a personal place. DeRice says she wants to provide happy holidays for others that she didn’t always experience growing up.

“This is my joy,” DeRice said. “This is my Christmas.”

DeRice grew up in Maine amid rough conditions. She says she had a dysfunctional family and was raised by her grandparents. 

Julie DeRice spends hours matching tags to presents so they can be shipped out.

“When people say ‘I was poor but I didn’t know it’ — kids know they’re poor,” DeRice said. “They’re not responsible for the choices their parents make.”

She was showered with love and affection, but her family’s financial state became more obvious during the holidays. She remembers other children receiving brand-new bikes while her grandfather repainted a used bike for Christmas. 

She met her husband Andrew and married early — both were around 16. They moved in together and Andrew started working at a meat packing company.

“We were on our own,” DeRice said. “We were two people who needed each other.”

Things steadily improved and the pair found themselves in the real estate world developing properties. They raised a family, continued to work hard, and eventually resettled to Casey Key.

 Giving back is something that’s been in the DeRice family for years. When she and her daughter Felicia were living in Maine, they started the tradition of “adopting” a family and providing them with presents every Christmas. Her daughter now carries out the tradition with her children.  

When DeRice slowed down during retirement, she started thinking about the families and children that go through hardships of their own.

“I was one of these children,” DeRice said. “I think that’s part of my motivation.”

“This is my joy. This is my Christmas.”

DeRice eventually joined the Casey Key Association Board and had the idea to assemble some of the neighbors to direct their good will and resources in a more targeted direction.

“There’s so much wealth here and such wonderful people,” DeRice said. “But there was no structure with a holiday (drive). I said ‘Why don’t we start something?’ and that was 11 years ago.”

The Casey Key Toy Drive has been going strong in partnership with the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program ever since.

She and fellow volunteers are assigned a number of children each year where each child has a tag listing of all their gift wishes and also basic necessities like diapers and clothing. DeRice gets to work collecting funds from neighbors and well-wishers starting in October. Any money that isn’t spent on presents and necessities is given to the Salvation Army. 

 Volunteers then go to Wal-Mart, Old Navy, toy stores and other outlets to buy the toys, clothing and other needs. The most popular present DeRice finds kids ask for year in and out are bicycles and she sometimes buys groups of bikes from Wal-Marts to be picked up. 

Dozens of presents and bags of goodies are dropped off and moved into DeRice’s guest room. She organizes the presents — which involves hours of sitting at her living room table checking tags and matching them with gifts — and hands them off to the Salvation Army, and the process starts over for weeks up through mid-December.

“I’m on a first name basis with the UPS (delivery) guy,” DeRice jokes. 

“When people say ‘I was poor but I didn’t know it’ — kids know they’re poor. They’re not responsible for the choices their parents make.”

It was a smaller endeavor at first but has steadily grown in size and money raised. DeRice connected with neighbors and volunteers through Facebook at first and now has a reliable group working to donate funds and acquire presents with her for years. That constant level of support doesn’t go unappreciated by DeRice. 

“If we had a hurricane and everything blew away, the biggest loss would be my neighborhood,” DeRice said. 

She’s gotten good at it over the years. The number of children she provides for has grown over time and has reached nearly 50 this year. Sometimes other Salvation Army volunteers are unable to give out presents like they’d hoped, and DeRice is happy to take those children off their hands. She’s been doing it long enough that the larger amounts of presents to acquire doesn’t put her off in the slightest. 

Giving back has been good for her spirits as well. What once was a small charitable act has grown into a sizable operation that has people from outside the Casey Key area checking in and making their own donations to the toy drive. It’s that charitable spirit that makes the holidays bright for DeRice. 

“I find people want to do this,” DeRice said. “It takes very little to get a ball rolling, all it takes is one person to start it (and then) it grows and grows. People want to give, some of them just need a little guidance.”

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