Joy in July

An early holiday celebration helps homeless children gear up for school.

Story by Cindy Conover Dashnaw • Photos by Logan Newell

Collier County on Florida’s Gulf Coast is one of the wealthiest areas in America, yet hundreds of children there are homeless. But not forgotten. 

For the third consecutive year, nine clubs of the Florida District hosted Christmas in July for the children. The event originated in 2001, when the Collier County Public School System identified 589 homeless children.

“In 2016, we raised US$11,000. We were able to get backpacks, school supplies, toiletries and size-specific sneakers, pants, shirts and underclothes for 150 of the 589 kids,” says Bill Ricigliano, a Northside Naples Kiwanis Club member who helped organize the original July party. “We knew we could do better.”

The next year, the Kiwanians calculated that a backpack cost $89 to fill, so the campaign offered donors the chance to “sponsor an angel” for $89. People responded generously, donating $107,000 to provide a full backpack plus a meal for 1,060 children either homeless or at risk.

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In the aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Irma, the demand for supplies more than doubled. 

“We now have over 1,300 children deemed homeless, plus 1,200 more at risk,” Ricigliano said as the clubs prepared for the 2017 event. “A lot of (donors) are burned out from all the hurricanes, so the backpacks may not be as stuffed as they were last year, but we’ve made sure every child is prepared and proud to go to school.”

Ricigliano credits partners and foundations for part of the project’s success. JCPenney offered discounted clothing, Bikes for Tykes gave every youngster a bicycle and Meals of Hope fed families. Santa and Mrs. Claus handed out backpacks inside a holiday-decorated Florida Sports Park facility. Then families selected whatever school supplies they needed.

“We have close to 270 Kiwanians in our division,” Ricigliano says, “and I’d say 80 percent of them get involved. It’s a great community.”

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This story originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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