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The holidays are looking a little brighter today for a local charity that suffered a devastating theft.

Lake/Sumter Families, which is dedicated to helping foster and adopted children, is collecting fresh donations after thieves took an estimated $20,000 worth of presents the group had collected to give to needy kids.

On Sunday, the group gathered donations at a barbecue restaurant by Clermont's Citrus Tower. "The community is just pouring in, so it's been great," said Bridget Brown, secretary of the charity. "A steady stream of people has been dropping off gifts."

Also Sunday, Hope Helps, an Oviedo charity, said it had received enough items from a recent drive that it would be able to give some to Lake/Sumter Families.

Monday, members of the charity will accept donations at First Baptist Church of Leesburg and AAA Storage in Groveland, Brown said.

People interested in donating can also call 352-394-0708. Beginning Monday, donations will also be accepted at area Wells Fargo bank branches, Brown said.

By Laura Gabaroni | October 12, 2011

The Talent Challenge is coming to University Carillon United Methodist Church - but don't run and hide. This event does not require any singing and dancing.

Instead, it's about using innate talents and gifts to reach out and help those in need.

According to the UCUMC website, the Talent Challenge is based off of a Scripture in which three people were given a talent to multiply and use for greater good in God's kingdom. The UCUMC is taking that story and applying it to the Talent Challenge, literally. Participants are given a "talent" of $10 and free reign of how to use the talent to multiply their money for one of seven missions projects.

"We give members of the congregation who want to participate $10 each, and challenge them to use their talent to go out and double or triple the money for charity," said UCUMC Missions Director Rhonda Howard.

This year, the Talent Challenge has taken on a new twist. Two special events are planned to raise money for charitable organizations. The first - Heart of UCUMC Auction Night -is a silent auction that will take place on Oct. 21. Participants can donate tangible items, gift certificates or experiences worth $50 or more, and will use their church-issued $10 to creatively display the auction items.

"My family is donating three golf tournament tickets," Howard said. "I will use the $10 from the church to display the tickets, the way sometimes Disney tickets are displayed, so that bidders will notice them."

Community members and local business owners are also contributing to this effort. Mike Nikollaj, whose family owns Giovanni's Italian Restaurants, said that his establishment is pleased to be a part of this important evening.

"[UCUMC] have been great over the years, putting together events to help our community," Nikollaj said. "They take care of our community, so we take care of them."

This event is free of charge and open to the public. Attire is casual, and heavy hors d'oeuvres and refreshments will be served. Auction donations will be accepted through Oct. 14. But the special weekend of community talent is just getting started. On Oct. 22 and 23, the church will host its Talent Challenge Bazaar after Saturday and Sunday services. At the bazaar, congregants can also turn their $10 into larger donations by selling smaller-ticket items.

"Some people use the money to buy ingredients for baked goods," Howard said. "Others purchase materials to make arts and crafts."

These items are sold at the bazaar, and the money raised, along with the proceeds from the auction, benefits charitable organizations. Reservations for bazaar table space are being accepted through Oct. 14. Carolyn Smith, UCUMC communications director, explained that participants in the Talent Challenge are not limited to these church-sponsored activities. Instead, they are free to multiply their $10 independently.

"Members are able to take the money and organize a fundraising activity of their choice," Smith said.

This year, seven organizations will receive the proceeds from the Talent Challenge. The local recipients will be the HOPE Foundation in Oviedo, the Interfaith Hospitality Network in Orlando, and United Methodist Children's Home in Enterprise, Fla. Abroad, the Talent Challenge proceeds will go to Jackie's House orphanage in the Dominican Republic, Zion Methodist Children's Home in The Bahamas, ZOE Ministry in Rwanda, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief's Somalia children's famine relief project.

"Our passion is to focus on families and children, both here and abroad," Howard said. "This event is about using our God-given talents to serve those in need and help as many people as we can, because that's what we are called to do."

UCUMC also offers other outreach efforts throughout the fall season, such as the new Men's Meat and Monday Night Football, a gathering each Monday to bring men together in Christian fellowship, and the UCF Home Game Outreach, which offers free hot dogs, chips and refreshments.

"These are all wonderful events to reach out to the community," said Patti Thue, UCUMC Launch Coordinator. "It's amazing how people get involved, and that's what we're hoping for. Our purpose is to reach out to people, to help them come together in fellowship and build relationships."

By Taylor Tillman |

There's a battle on the horizon at Winter Springs High School, but this is no ordinary showdown. Lining up clad with guitars, drums and rock and roll, the area's best bands will battle to be named the winner, all in the name of charity. The student government association WSHS is hosting an event new to the school called "Battling for Hope."

The show is a battle of the bands event to help raise food - not money - for the HOPE Helps food pantry. Admission into the event will be one grocery bag full of non-perishable food or toiletries suited for teens.

"We've never done anything this big before. I hope we have a tremendous turnout in order to achieve this goal in order to give back," said Pamela Gaskill, student government association sponsor at WSHS.

HOPE Helps Inc., is a nonprofit organization in Oviedo that, according to its website, aims to both reduce and prevent homeless in the Central Florida area through housing and education programs. Nearly 72 percent of the families served at HOPE are families in crisis that are not yet homeless. One of the resources HOPE provides is a food pantry with meat, produce, and canned goods for families in need available three days per week. HOPE also provides financial assistance to those in need.

"Our goal at HOPE is to assist families before they end up homeless," said Krissy Todd, HOPE's founder and CEO.

Dakota Kendall, a senior at Winter Springs and a member of the student government, was inspired by a talk given to the leadership class regarding HOPE's mission for families in Seminole County by Todd.

"Something has to be done about this," Kendall said. "Kids are thinking that their homelessness is their fault."

Kendall was also touched by a March segment on the CBS program 60 Minutes, which showed that Seminole County has nearly 1,000 homeless youth living and going to school in the county.

"It was a big deal that our county was highlighted on national news," Kendall said. "I had no idea that this was going on in our county. We need to come together to try to benefit the situation."

Kendall and his peer, junior Kiersten Coffman, planned the event along with Gaskill.

"I believe this event shows people in the community that not all high school students are self-focused, but rather very aware of the struggling economy and how it is affecting their neighbors," Gaskill said.

To determine the amount of food the event would like to collect, Kendall asked HOPE Helps how much food it takes to fill up the pantry for one week. The food pantry division of HOPE determined it needed at least 2,400 cans of food and 900 dry goods.

"That is our goal to be raised by the event," Kendall said.

The event will take place in the Winter Springs High School football stadium on Saturday from 9 a.m.-2 p.m.

The headlining band, Blizzard Shack, has been featured on 104.1 FM.

Bands participating in the actual battle will be the winners of previous competitions held at additional area high schools like Hagerty, Lake Mary and Lake Brantley.

By Laura Newberry |

In Seminole County, more than 26,000 children are eligible for free or reduced lunch. However, when school lets out, many of these kids' daytime meals are replaced with grumbling stomachs. Robin Nease, a working-class Longwood resident, feared that her children would fall into this increasingly common category. Two years ago, Nease was let go from Bill Heard Chevrolet after significant layoffs within the company, and she lost her other job due to disability. She was left with a decision: find help, or watch her children go hungry. Nease found refuge in Kids of HOPE, an enrichment program that provides lunches during school breaks for children in Seminole County and the surrounding areas.

"I'm very sad because I can't provide for my children like I used to when I had two jobs. I'm only part time and it's really hurting us," Nease said. "With this program I don't have to worry about food and can concentrate on major bills."

The Kids of HOPE program began in 2009, shortly after Nease abruptly found herself and her family in a state of impoverishment. Nease said that for the past three summers she has come to collect food for her children, ages 14 and 16, every Thursday. The HOPE program just began for the season, and according to Jailene Warren, the HOPE food pantry coordinator, 437 children are already signed up to receive daily lunches until school resumes in August. Over 700 kids are expected to be served by the end of the summer. The program's formula is simple: parents can come in alone, or with their children, and pick up five lunch bags for each of their kids. Generally, parents will come only once a week, on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday.

Each lunch bag includes a small box of cereal, a non-perishable meal (such as individual ravioli entrees), fruit and two snacks. Kids of HOPE runs during spring and Christmas breaks in addition to summer vacation.

"Parents come here to get their lunches when they normally wouldn't come to a food pantry because they're ashamed," Warren said. "They will come to get food for their kid. Then we can help them access other services."

According to Warren, childhood hunger is a far more common crisis in Seminole County than most people realize -- so much so that the area was featured in a CBS 60 Minutes segment that highlighted the problem. The segment showed Seminole County public school busses stopping at motels to pick students up, and local children explaining to the reporter what it feels like to be hungry. The show also provided startling statistics, like the fact that more than 1,000 Seminole County students have recently lost their homes.

"After the show ran, people were shocked that this was happening in Seminole County," said Joan Faulkner, the director of development and marketing for HOPE. "People think of it as a more well-off community and were surprised that there are children that are hungry here."

"The median is skewed. I think we all recognize that. Though Oviedo's median income is about $70,000, that number is driven by a very small contingency of wealthy people. I have 1,600 clients in my books and 70 percent live in Oviedo or Winter Springs," Warren said.

Since the program aired, Kids of HOPE has seen an increased outpouring of generosity from the community. Local churches, schools and restaurants keep the HOPE pantry stocked and allow for the giving out of what will be almost 12,000 lunches by the end of the summer. Whole Foods Market, Publix, Chipotle and Panera are among a few of the business that regularly donate to the cause. Although food distribution is the primary goal of Kids of HOPE, the program coordinators also try to aid the children's emotional well-being through little efforts such as making sure the lunch bags are decorated. Children in schools, mothers looking for craft projects, and churches are among a few groups that have decorated bags for HOPE.

"They get more excited about the bag sometimes than the food. People put notes in them like, 'Have a great day,' or 'Enjoy your lunch,' " Warren said. "We're able to wrap our arms around the community and provide them with not just their basic needs, but the understanding that we do love them."

The festive bagged lunches are what get the parents in the door, but according to Warren, the program wants to go above and beyond lunch distribution.

"I don't want them to just come in and pick up five lunch bags for their kids and walk away - I want them to sign up for our food pantry and come and get food for the rest of the meals," Warren said. "I want them to come in and see our resource center and have an intake with the case manager. I want them to talk about why they're in a situation where they need food in the first place."

Once a case manager assesses a family's situation, they are able to help meet the needs of the family. Services can vary, from assisting people in finding a new job to paying for a family's electric bill.

"During the course of this summer program we want to get every one of the families that's involved in the program to apply for food stamps, even if they've been denied before. The reasons you get denied for food stamps is a myriad of reasons, and they'll try once and give up," Warren said. Warren said that HOPE primarily deals with two kinds of people: the generational poor and the new poor. The generational poor, or working poor, are people who have jobs (often minimum wage) but they aren't able to make enough money to provide for their families. The new poor, on the other hand, are those that have been hit worst by the recession.

"It's the first time they've ever been in poverty. It's a first-time crisis," Warren said.

"I see the families that come in here, and it's like middle class America is starting to converge into the lower class. These people don't have that roadmap like people that have been living in generational poverty," Wright said.

Krissy Todd, the CEO of HOPE, said Seminole County residents are especially susceptible to being unaware of the programs available to them in the area. Todd explained that there are no Title 1 schools in Winter Springs or Oviedo, which causes a lack of food programs for children. Although this predicament stalls the progress of HOPE, volunteers and supporters of the program still strive to make an impact.

"As long as we have food on the shelves, we'll be giving out lunches down to the last item," Warren said. "I don't want to see one more child go hungry in Seminole county."