It's been a tough year for Maria Alvarez.
The mother of 6-year-old twins, Arianna and Dahlia, has been treated for cancer twice and her husband lost his job.
She was looking at a bleak Christmas this year until she was notified by her children's school counselor at Limona Elementary School that her children had been chosen to attend the 26th annual Brandon Junior Woman's Club Christmas party where they'd be treated to lunch, a visit with Santa, gifts and crafts.
Alvarez said she had a hard time holding back the tears.
"Without this, we really wouldn't have a Christmas," said Alvarez. "I'm just so very grateful."
"This means so much to these kids," said FishHawk Creek Elementary School guidance counselor Carmella Pizzichetti. "It really brightens their holidays. A lot of these kids had a lot of losses this year and this event brings them some extra joy and normalcy. With the economy the way it is, there are so many parents out of work who can't provide Christmas for their children."
Among the children Pizzichetti brought along from FishHawk Creek Elementary was a little boy whose guardian, his grandmother, had just died.
"He really needed this bit of happiness," said Pizzichetti. "It's been a tough year for him."
Among the schools represented at the Dec. 14 event held at The Regent in Riverview were Nelson, Kingswood, Mintz, Colson, McDonald, Brooker, Cimino, Limona, Buckhorn, Schmidt and FishHawk Creek elementary schools. Although 73 children attended the event, the Junior Woman's Club provided gifts for 92 children, including siblings of those attending the party.
East Bay High School teacher and club member Stephanie Pierce coordinated this year's party for the club, bringing along some of her East Bay High School students to serve as party elves.
"We raise money all year for this party," said club member Becky Goble, noting that each child receives about $100 in gifts including three to four toys on their wish lists, shoes, underwear, an outfit and school supplies.
However, the club isn't alone in its efforts to bring a brighter Christmas to this underprivileged children.
Food for the party was donated by Hungry Howies, the Golden Corral, Beef O' Brady's of Valrico and Subway.
Contributing toward the gifts was Macy's, Napa Auto Parts, Payless Shoes, Cosco and Sam's Club. The Pottery Patch of Valrico donated ornaments that the children painted to take home.
"This is just awesome. They do such a wonderful job and are so generous," said McDonald Elementary guidance counselor Deborah Badertscher. "Santa wasn't going to be able to visit a lot of these kids this year. Today may be their only Christmas."
"It's a wonderful opportunity and we're ever so grateful," said Pizzichetti.