PUNTA GORDA — About 200 families comprised of foster and adopted children came to the First United Methodist Church on Saturday for the Christmas Luncheon.
There was a meal and a visit with Santa who brought toys for the children.
Punta Gorda City Council members, other public officials, first responders, judges, business leaders and others manned the buffet tables and served the meals.
Now in its sixth year, the annual Christmas Luncheon came about after Punta Gorda Police Officer Joe Angelini, a Charlotte County public school resource officer, was asked to mentor a first-grader more than six years ago.
Little did he know he’d be on a path that would change many children’s lives, including his own.
“I had lunch with the kid and built a rapport with him,” Angelini said. “But I wondered why he was so defiant.”
Angelini soon learned the boy had lived in 10 different foster homes in a year in both Charlotte and Lee counties.
“It broke my heart,” said Angelini, a father of two.
From there, his idea snowballed. He teamed up with Melissa Schoenagel, director of kinship and foster parents and children for Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, and their idea for an annual gathering grew.
The first year or two, there was only a dinner.
“Some 80 came to it,” he said.
But as the years went by, more and more families were included in the Christmas luncheon, and the invite extended to both Charlotte and Lee counties children and their families.
Also, Santa Claus and toys became part of the event.
Names of foster children and their families to be sent an invite each year, are provided by Schoenagel.
Along the way, many in the community have stepped up to donate food, their time, service, and outright labor to make the holiday season very special for foster children and the families who care for them.
Tim Buck, director of youth ministry at First United Methodist Church, made arrangements to have the luncheon held in the church’s Family Life Center which can accommodate a large crowd.
He and his wife Heather, a teacher at Liberty Elementary School in Port Charlotte, were on hand to help out and see that things were running smoothly on Saturday.
Angelini, who wears many hats at the annual luncheon, raced around the church’s large Bryant Family Life Center to make sure the 40-plus volunteers had everything they needed to perform their roles.
This year, like years past, he recruited leaders who would serve the families their food. He also sought donations, such as food, from area restaurants.
Members of the church donated and wrapped toys which were stored in what Tim Buck called, “Santa’s workshop,” which was actually a room in the facility.
More than 400 toys were wrapped by members of the church’s congregation and were ready to be given out by Santa.
“I want the families to know the community cares about them,” Angelini said.
Unlike the first couple of years of the luncheon, when just food was served, each family on Saturday went home with a gift certificate for a turkey at Publix, groceries, and, of course, toys.
Bill Dryburgh, with Punta Elks Lodge 2606, said it brought along turkey breasts, stuffing, gravy mix and cranberry sauce.
“We cooked on Wednesday and sliced today,” he said.
Angelini said Laishley’s Crab House provided several pans each of lasagna, corn and string beans, while A Perfect Caper sent over eight trays of mashed potatoes.
The dessert came from Howard’s Hershey’s Ice Cream in Port Charlotte, he said.
Many at the event were quick to exalt the benefits of fostering a child.
“It is very rewarding,” said Jennifer Moyer, from North Fort Myers.
She and her husband, Donald Moyer, had their four foster kids with them — siblings Cattleya, 6, Maddix, 4, and Skye, 3, as well as Jace, 2.
Of their eight children, seven are adopted, she said.
Tom and Sue Overbaugh, of Port Charlotte, were with their two foster children and two children for whom they serve as guardians.
Heather Buck, who was sitting with the Overbaughs, said one of their kids is in her fifth-grade class at Liberty Elementary.
Perhaps the couple in the room with the most experience fostering were Lisa and George Alvarez, of Deep Creek.
In all, they fostered 119 children, beginning when they lived in Miami. They are certified to care for children with medical needs, and they had their new foster baby with them. They also brought along their grandson, Jonah, whose mother they adopted.
“It’s very rewarding; give it a try and just try to help a child,” Lisa Alvarez said of being a foster parent.
Lori Feige, director of licensing for Children’s Network of Southwest Florida, said that foster parenting is not limited: people can be married, single, divorced, straight or gay, working or non-working, and age is not a restriction.
She said there is a dire need for foster parents in Southwest Florida.
Candidates for foster parenting have to undergo a background check and have the home inspected to make sure it is safe for the child.
For further information, call the Children’s Network at 239-226-1524, or visit the website www.childnetswfl.org.