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East County Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019 5 days ago

Charity another of Santa's secrets in Lakewood Ranch

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Lakewood Ranch residents help local family in need with Christmas gifts.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

Lakewood Ranch’s Marybeth and Jay Traverso normally use their kitchen island for food preparation. For now, though, it’s been transformed into a mound of presents for children they’ve never met.

“This is Santa’s workshop,” Marybeth Traverso said with a smile.

The Traversos and about 25 other Lakewood Ranch families have joined forces to provide Christmas gifts and other items for a Lakewood Ranch

family in need. They’re calling the holiday effort “Secret Santa.” Those buying gifts know little about the family, except the needs and wants of the four children for whom they’re shopping.

Secret Santa organizer Claudia Hubert has validated that the need is real and keeps the identity of the family secret to protect their privacy, as well to keep the gift giving as a surprise for the recipients.

Hubert came up with the idea for Secret Santa last year after she met a woman who worked at a Lakewood Ranch gas station. Through casual conversation, Hubert learned she didn’t have an air-conditioned car, even though it was the heat of summer.

“I realized she was struggling,” Hubert said, adding that she learned more of the woman’s needs as they talked. “I had this desire to do something, and I didn’t know what.”

At Christmastime, she put a call out on Nextdoor.com, a social platform, and about 25 neighbors stepped forward to shop secretly for the woman and her family. The recipient did not know she had been selected until Hubert delivered gifts to her door. Hubert handled coordination and logistics, as well as wrapping and delivering gifts.

“It all went great, but by the end, I was exhausted,” Hubert said. “I swore I’d never do it again.”

But this summer, Hubert hired some teenage boys to complete yard work at her home. One had a cellphone and a bicycle while the other didn’t. Hubert learned the one without a phone didn’t have a computer either.

She found someone to donate a bicycle to him but didn’t forget about him.

After learning more about his family’s situation, she felt Secret Santa could be put to use again. He was one of four children at home with a single, working mom. They needed bedroom furniture and clothing for the children, chairs for the dining table and other supplies.

On Nextdoor, Hubert again put out a plea for help — both for donations and for administrative assistance. Marybeth Traverso and another volunteer, Lisa Laufenberg, stepped up immediately to help orchestrate this year’s efforts.

Marybeth Traverso said at her old church in the Washington, D.C., area, church members would shop for families in the same format.

“We loved that,” she said. “You know where the gifts are going. If we can make their holiday a little brighter, that’s great.”

Hubert said this year’s recipient is also in desperate need of a SUV. She keeps spending money on repairs and hasn’t been able to save enough for a replacement yet.

“That’s the vicious cycle of living paycheck to paycheck,” Hubert said. “You can’t get ahead.”

Jay Traverso said there’s a perception that everyone in Lakewood Ranch is rich, but it’s simply not the case. There are million-dollar homes, as well as more affordable condos or homes built in 1995 that are older and in need of repair.

He and his wife said they are happy to help a neighbor going through a hard time.

As the Traversos stood in their kitchen wrapping a batch of presents, fellow Secret Santa shopper Julie Batien arrived and joined them with some toys in hand.

“My heart went out to her,” said Batien, who was with her 1-year-old son, Dean. “I can’t imagine trying to take care of four kids [alone]. Why wouldn’t I help?”

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