NORTH TAMPA – On a recent occasion Witter Elementary School Pre-Kindergarten/Special Education Teacher Emily Levy had the chance to repeatedly use a word her students rarely hear.
As a chaperone on a field trip with a group of 80 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade youngsters from the school, she found herself saying “yes” to almost every child’s request.
Thanks to Tampa attorney Christopher Ligori, an exuberant assembly of the neediest students from the school were treated to a complimentary lunch plus a $100-each holiday shopping spree at the University Plaza’s Target store near Fletcher Avenue and 30th Street. This was quite a treat for the students at a school in which 97 percent of the children receive free or reduced lunches.
“It is so nice of Mr. Ligori and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be with the children today,” Levy said. “They are having the time of their lives.”
Ligori, who hopes to make it an annual event, said the idea came about as a result of the heart-breaking stories he heard about some of the Witter students from his wife, Sherrie, who taught at the school for seven years.
“If this makes these kids happy and make their lives a little better at Christmastime it’s all worth it,” said Ligori, who gathered all the youngsters together inside the store just prior to their shopping blitz and stipulated the only requirement: they each had to pick out at least one outfit of clothing for themselves.
Sherrie Ligori said that during her time at the school, both as an intern and later as a teacher, she learned many of the youngsters were being raised by grandparents because their parents were incarcerated.
She noted the same scenario is true today and it’s commonplace that the children’s caretakers are poor.
“Many of these kids have shoes that don’t fit, clothes that are too small and no jackets to wear when the weather turns cold,” Sherrie Ligori said.
Seeing the joy on the children’s faces on this particular day brought tears to her eyes.
“They are great kids and I’m so glad Chris is able to do this for them,” she added. “I’m also glad our two daughters are here to experience it with us.”
Eleven-year-old Juliana Ligori said earlier in the day her dad drove the family through some of the neighborhoods the Witter students call home.
“It was so sad to see where some of them live and it showed a lot of these kids don’t have much of anything,” she said. “So this is really good because they can get things they need and also some things they would really like to have.”
Interestingly Zoey Kelly, 9, seemed to be primarily interested in finding a Christmas gift for her cousin.
“I like this because I get a chance to buy something for my family,” she said. “For myself, I’ll probably get clothes – something pink because that’s my favorite color and probably with flowers, because I also like flowers.”
Erin Saunders, a social worker at Witter and some other schools in the Hillsborough County Public Schools system, said the Witter students who were chosen to participate in the shopping spree are the “neediest of the needy” among the school’s 564 enrollees.
“For me it’s all about having these kids experience the magic of Christmas that they otherwise would not get,” she said.
First-graders Ebony Basden, 6, and Jashira Hunter, 7, paired up to do their shopping with first-grade teacher Carolyn Hunter.
“I think it’s awesome because I get to get some toys,” Ebony said.
Jashira was intent on getting toys and clothes, but not just for herself.
“I’m thinking about getting something for my big sister,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Kathleen Malpartiua was charged with keeping tabs on Julian Bunnell, 5, and Deshawn Shaw, 6.
“This means everything to me because it brings them so much joy,” she said. “Most of these kids live below the poverty level.”
And fourth-grade teacher Brent Daniels, who also was on hand as a chaperone, said it was an experience the students won’t soon forget.
“This is their Christmas,” he said.
Daniels also doubts he will ever forget the day. He pointed to a “present” in his cart, put there by one of the youngsters he oversaw during the shopping venture.
The package contained three pairs of boys’ underwear.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]