Like so many others who claim to have retired when moving to Longboat Key, Beverly Sutton didn’t actually retire. She doesn’t get paid anymore, but she never gave up education.
After moving to Longboat 15 years ago, Sutton, a former inner city Baltimore school teacher and charter school principal, promptly started a reading program through Christ Church. On Wednesday evening, she was paid generously in smiles.
About 40 children from the 13th Avenue Dream Center showed up on a big, yellow school bus ready to celebrate Christmas with their reading buddies. Church volunteers read one-on-one with these students every other week, but that’s a smaller detail when considering the program is entirely funded through the church.
This isn’t just a few hours of reading and one night of handing out gifts, this is a 15 year commitment to creating and financially supporting a program that helps hundreds of children succeed in school and life thereafter.
“This is a four-day a week reading program after school,” Sutton said, “And the church pays the salaries of the teachers.”
The children attend different elementary schools in Manatee County and meet at the Dream Center after school. The church provides an hour and a half one-on-one tutoring session. The mission is “to be a light in the lives of at-risk children and to shine a light on reading.”
The overall mission of the Dream Center is to provide a safe place for a vulnerable population and guide those children towards meeting their full potential in adulthood.
In addition to a present from Santa, the children plus their families and teachers were invited to take part in a feast. The dining hall smelled like the kitchen of La Norma with so many meatballs simmering. Each teacher left with a $50 gift card, each family left with a $100 gift card and 150 new books were added to the Dream Center’s library.
Before dinner, four students took to the pulpit to show off their reading skills. Then, all the children gathered as a choir to sing “Away in a Manger.” But this was not the main event. Their little eyes never stopped scanning the room. They were waiting to see Santa.
He arrived to a loud and rhythmic chant of “San-ta Claus. San-ta Claus.” The children had been sitting politely in criss-cross applesauce pose, but all bets are off when the red suit walks in.
Kids lined up one by one to meet Santa and receive their gifts. He let each one know how much he missed them. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the feast had to be canceled the last two years. Santa wasn’t alone in having missed this event.
“When you look at those kids when they go up to meet Santa Claus, with those eyes, what a treat,” church facility manager Richie Raymond said.
Santa tends to take over the spotlight, but Christmas is a celebration of Jesus. A birthday cake was rolled out in his honor, and Sutton spoke to the children about some of the things Jesus could have had in common with them when he was a child.
While not much is known of Jesus as a child, Sutton said it’s assumed he probably liked to play, got on his mother’s nerves sometimes and also dreamt of all the things he could be when he grew up.
“He thought about being a carpenter because that’s what his dad was. He thought about being a shepherd and watching his flock of sheep. He thought about being a store owner,” Sutton said. “But what Jesus decided to be was a teacher because he knew teachers change lives.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct gift card amount given to teachers.