Long before the doors opened at Grace Community Church in Lithia, migrant farmworkers, with their eager children in tow, began lining up outside in anticipation of an early Christmas.
In what's become a seasonal tradition for the Seeds of Hope food pantry, volunteers gathered inside the church Friday night, hurriedly preparing boxes of groceries, pillows, blankets and toys to distribute to 200 families who might not otherwise receive anything this holiday.
Working with Seeds of Hope founder Leda Eaton, Pinecrest Elementary School migrant resource teacher Delma Fuentes invited the families she knows are most in need to participate in the annual distribution.
"I know their needs because I know all of these families personally," said Fuentes. "This is a big deal for these families. During the strawberry season, they pick strawberries for $2 a basket. Their paychecks might be $25 to $100 a week."
She said the families can barely afford to buy food, much less toys for their children at Christmas.
"I visited one family yesterday who had just come down from North Carolina," she said. "There home was completely empty."
A portion of the proceeds from the annual FishHawk Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day purchased a week's worth of groceries for each family. And, throughout the month, FishHawk residents and businesses collected toys, blankets and pillows to give out.
As the parents waited to receive their food and other donations, the children were treated to a Christmas story, crafts, cookies and juice, and a picture with Santa Claus, played by Newsome High School Spanish teacher Brian Long.
Serving as Santa's elf was 9-year-old Bevis Elementary School student Clay Patterson. The youngster had been saving his money for months to purchase 200 toys for the needy children.
Newsome High students Nick Behringer and Caylee Fredette handled the photography while members of the Newsome High girls' soccer team passed out cookies and helped the children create Christmas crafts.
"We love doing this," said volunteer Michelle Greene of Fish Hawk Trails, accompanied by her daughter, Mariah, a Newsome soccer player, and husband, Tim. "The girls have been great with the kids, and you can tell the families are very grateful. It's so heartwarming."