When Lakewood Ranch residents Maribeth Phillips and Alice Hein started filling and wrapping shoeboxes with little gifts to give to seniors in the community back in 2006, they had no idea that they would be starting one of the biggest holiday traditions in Manatee County.
That spirit was on full display on Dec. 4 as more than 200 members of the community – and even more that went through a drive-thru lane – donated enough shoeboxes to fill two cargo vans at the 16th annual Community Holiday Shoebox Drive and Reception at the Lakewood Ranch Elks.
The event serves as a benefit for Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee to provide shoeboxes filled with gifts to senior clients of the nonprofit. Phillips, the CEO and president of Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee, said the organization had a goal of 1,000 shoeboxes that had gifts ranging from toiletries to holiday trinkets for homebound seniors.
"Meals on Wheels Plus delivers meals every week to about 900 clients in Manatee County," Phillips said. "So this holiday, they will also get one of these beautiful shoe boxes as their holiday gift. In so many cases, this is the only item that a senior might get during the holidays, so it really has a lot of meaning and brings a lot of joy to our seniors. Sometimes, the person who delivers certain meals is the only person that they actually talk to."
Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee Board Chairman Mark Goodson said the organization was grateful for everyone that came out to help.
"When you go to these houses and you deliver food, you see their faces and they're so delighted to get the food," Goodson said. "Then they see you leave...and all of the sudden their faces change. You can see the worry on their faces because they won't see or talk to anyone else. We're so happy to be able to do this."
The night was filled with music, food and good times. Some of the raffle winners found humor in their winnings – especially Veletta Tusa, who won a girls bike that came outfitted with training wheels and a unicorn helmet. She jokingly said she planned on riding the small bike around her Lakewood Ranch neighborhood. Lilly Gerling won a stuffed unicorn that was nearly as big as she was.
As the night came to an end, Bradenton resident Paul Reddy had the winning ticket to the 50/50 raffle. Instead of keeping his $250 prize, he immediately donated the money back to Meals on Wheels Plus of Manatee.
"This is just a wonderful community event," Phillips said. "It's an enjoyable thing and a great way to start the holiday season."