A Community Christmas: Celebrating the Work of a Generous City

Lakeland is a generous community, and never is that generosity more evident than at Christmas time. Just as Christmas is celebrated a little differently in every family, organizations that help others in Lakeland and Polk County have their own special traditions and ways of serving. I asked local ministries to give us a glimpse into the ways they serve our community during the Christmas season. I want to be clear – Christmas is just a small part of what these ministries do. The real work happens in the day-in and day-out as they serve the community all year long. Supporting their work is part of what we can do to care for our neighbors.

As parents and teachers, we know that our kids can be self-focused. Sharing with others helps us re-orient and helps our kids learn that they are not the center of the universe—that role belongs to God alone. It’s important to help kids express their love for Jesus by serving their neighbors as they learn to “count others more significant than yourselves”(Philippians 2:3).

I encourage you to make last-minute gift giving for friends and family a little less hectic and model for your kids being the “hands and feet of Jesus”. Make a contribution to the ministry of your choice in the name of those on your list who don’t need one more “thing”, but will love knowing they’ve made a real difference in the lives of others.

Though there are many worthy ministries, I chose six to highlight:

  • Dream Center
  • Gospel, Inc.
  • Lighthouse Ministries
  • Parker Street Ministries
  • Salvation Army

The Dream Center

“Every week, Kids Club goes into local low-income areas and busses kids to the Dream Center. Every year our Kids Club wraps up the year with a special Christmas celebration. Our Christmas service is an extra special day with added games, music, a wonderful teaching time, and every kid gets a special Christmas gift. This year kids all got a Kids Club shirt and a bag full of special toys, activities, and essentials.

The Lakeland Fire Department has hosted a toy drive for the Dream Center annually at Christmas. These toys go to targeted families in our programs, and others we connect with through our local partners.

Our food pantry and thrift store (free with vouchers provided through DC programs) continue to serve throughout Christmas season, often provided warm clothing for neighbors as temperatures drop. Dream Center hosts additional outreaches that provide meals, gifts, and resources to our neighbors and low-income communities.”  

Steven Hill, Dream Center Program Director

Gospel, Inc.

“Gospel Inc. is a Christian non-profit homeless ministry with a vision of including the outcast in authentic community, and we do this by housing the chronically homeless men and women in Lakeland, Florida. 

We celebrate Christmas in a variety of ways. This year, we hosted a “Christmas Extravaganza” open house where we sold handmade items by our women’s program RePurpose Art Studio and men’s program ReImagined Restoration, such as: jewelry, holiday decor, repurposed wood trees, and more. You can find these handcrafted pieces at the local farmers’ market on Saturdays, in the sales room at the RePurpose Art Studio every weekday, and also on our Instagram or Facebook pages. 

Every year we celebrate the holidays by providing a delicious meal in the studio kitchen. This year a group of volunteers is donating a Honey Baked ham with sides and also making a unique dessert with chocolate covered strawberries. These are to be made in the kitchen alongside the program participants! We love opportunities like this to teach and to make something creative and new while enjoying it too! 

It is our joy to also provide a Christmas gift package to each person we house that is filled with donations and various goodies including clothing, food, hygiene items, and gift cards. This year we are blessed by a group of sixteen college student volunteers called LEAD FLORIDA, who will hand deliver each gift while dressing festively and singing Christmas Carols!

We couldn’t do what we do with our the volunteers, donations, and support from Lakeland, Florida. We are grateful to be a part of a community that loves on the homeless and those who need it most!”

Rachel Rose, Gospel, Inc. Office Administrator

Lighthouse Ministries

Lighthouse Ministries Is celebrating 43 years of making Christmas more meaningful to the poor and homeless families in our community. 

Over the years opportunities have evolved for ministry to men, families, single adults, and women with children. The acts of love and biblical compassion displayed by our community not only makes our job easier but is what makes our job possible. 

We are always blessed by the outpouring of love from the community for the residents of the Life Learning Campus here at Lighthouse as well as to those in need from the community through our Hope Centers in our Thrift Stores and to the Homeless that we serve through the Men’s Gospel Rescue Mission.

Every year businesses and members of the community like Ray and Sue Quillen of Urban Tropical have collected toys to fill our “Santa’s Workshop” so that we can help families in need have toys for under the tree for their children. This year the generosity of the community has made it possible to supply toys for over four hundred children. We also supply much needed food boxes and Turkeys for a delicious Christmas dinners.

While Lighthouse serves meals every day of the year for the homeless population of Lakeland, for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we serve special meals at the Rescue Mission, where we decorate the dining room so it is warm and festive. This meal is served, restaurant style, to our seated guests by volunteers that choose to spend their time serving others on this joyous night. There are many things that need to be done ahead of time by willing volunteers to make this meal memorable. The time of sweet fellowship is enjoyed by so many. We also provide special gift bags for our overnight guests on Christmas Eve so that they, too, can have a present to open!

A variety of Churches continue to shop for Christmas gifts for our adult and children residents and clients who we serve. Our men’s program director Barry Howell and his wife Heather enjoy taking the men in the program to a local restaurant for lunch opened on Christmas Day.  

We enjoy decorating the facilities at Lighthouse! Some of the highlights are The Christmas village which for the last several years we have had a volunteer set up the donated Christmas Village (a lovely train and snowy town) that our resident children and visitors enjoy during this time of year as they walk through their home. It is a large project for a volunteer willing to put joy on a child’s face and leave them with this beautiful memory of their time here. As well as several Christmas trees that a great group of ladies have faithfully set up including a huge one in our women’s lobby that, without a doubt, gets everyone that sees it in the Christmas spirit! They also put up another tree in our dining room and decorate other areas with Christmas cheer. We all look forward to this bustling activity and know that it will transform our women’s campus into a winter wonderland! 

One of our Board members, Gina Saunders, opens up her home every year for a very special Christmas Coffee event that raises needed funding for our programs but also gives the lady residents a chance to share their stories of how God is working in their lives. It is a wonderfully blessed time of sweet fellowship and delicious food!

Although COVID has kept us from experiencing the traditional Christmas parties offered by local churches for our men, women, and children, in the past we have been so very blessed with Christmas cheer by people who love the Lord and love to bring joy to the less fortunate during this time of year. These parties have had lasting effects on residents as they end up talking about them long after and love to tell the new residents how great it will be when December rolls around!

Yet, despite COVID, we were extremely blessed this year to be gifted a delicious staff breakfast that was sponsored by the local Lakeland chapter of WoodmenLife. They have supported the residents in many ways in the past but this year they were also willing to provide this special Christmas breakfast so that staff had a nice time of fellowship and a reminder of the reason for the season. We thank WoodmenLife so much!”

Jessica Cassita, Lighthouse Ministries Volunteer Coordinator

Parker Street Ministries

With lots of energy being poured into new safety protocols and redesigning processes, it seemed COVID 19 was stealing the show for holiday ministry this year. The twist was that, compared to any previous year, more generosity was displayed, more patience and creativity came forward, and more opportunities arose for individualized care for neighborhood families. We are pleased to report that, per usual and in this different year, Jesus and generosity remained the holiday headliners. Our Very Different Annual Neighborhood Christmas Store was a blessed success.

PSM’s holiday ministries run a little differently. The hope is to love our neighbors extravagantly and to be rehabilitative by affirming the dignity of parents who select and purchase new toys for their children. To those ends, we host a fully functioning neighborhood store. The community provides brand new toys and funds to purchase toys which are steeply discounted and lovingly placed on shelves. The same concept works out through a separate Kids’ Corner where kids come shop for their parents and loved ones at even steeper discounts.

This year, what a sweet time was had as shoppers young and old from two very low-income neighborhoods came to shop in a safe environment with a limited number of volunteers with a lot of wonderful toys and wonderful price tags. Instead of having to rush through the hustle and bustle of a large crowd of families in a large store, we got to just be together with our limited few per shift – laugh together, cry together, look for gifts for their kids together.

Preliminary numbers: 

  • More than $26,000 (retail value) in toys were sold at a steep discount of at least 75%,
  • 1000 benefited – parents, kids, family members: all gave and received The Gift of Giving,
  • New families participated and opened the door wide for year-round connections across all PSM programs,
  • 50 organizations and countless individualsgave toys and filled 250 micro-volunteer slots. A limited number came onsite. Remote volunteering came into full swing. Some wrote personalized holiday cards to shoppers; some kept up with data entry so each store shift could be stocked to fit shoppers’ wish lists; some made family advent take-homes, and some created household wrapping kits to send home with shoppers.
  • After the final store, 500 excess toys were donated to three area ministries to round out their holiday ministries. And Neighborhood Christmas Store was a wrap.

This holiday ministry took place while our after-school tutoring program serving eLearners and bricks and mortar students continued. Staff and Board rejoice knowing neighborhood families are enjoying the ability to provide for their own family and have been pointed to The Father of Lights who gives Jesus, the embodiment of every good and perfect gift.

To give or learn more about PSM visit www.psmlakeland.org

M. Kim Schell, CFRE – Chief Operating Officer

Salvation Army

“Every year we have an Angel Tree tradition! Families in our community adopt “angels”, children in the community and help shop to buy gifts so they can have a Christmas.  We helped 600 families this Christmas season!”

Mandy Fulton, Salvation Army Director of Development

VISTE (Volunteers In Service to The Elderly)

Since 1983 VISTE has been dedicated to a single mission: enabling frail and elderly persons to remain safely and independently in their own homes. Today, VISTE provides essential services to more than 4,300 local seniors from 70 to 106 years of age. Thanks to community support and over 1,000 dedicated volunteers, all services are provided free of charge to these seniors in need.

Key programs include Hot Meals, Supplemental Groceries, and Transportation. Additional services include accessibility ramps, emergency monitoring services, Phone Pal calls, and birthday cakes for clients age 90 and older, among other programs.

For the past 24 years VISTE has kicked off the Holiday Season with a Thanksgiving Meal Delivery event which this year benefited 1,800 low-income clients. This was followed by a Holiday Personal Care Box campaign to raise funds for much-needed items for 400 seniors, including special items for veterans. 200 VISTE clients will also receive Christmas gifts, thanks to a partnership with local businesses and service groups. All programs have been adjusted this year to help ensure safety through personalized, “no contact” delivery.

These programs not only help brighten the Holiday Season, but also reduce the adverse effects of social isolation, a significant risk for seniors, especially those living alone. VISTE is honored to be of service to elderly residents of western Polk County and to help your frail and elderly family, friends, and neighbors age at home with dignity. If you would like to support these efforts, volunteers are needed to deliver hot meals and supplemental groceries. You can contact VISTE, or make an online contribution by visiting the VISTE website at www.viste.org

Steve Bissonnette, President

As 2020 draws to a close, I want to express a heartfelt “thank you” to the ministries that have persevered through such a challenging time and those who support them.  Thanks to so many who volunteer, give, and participate in these ministries and others around our city.

May God be glorified by the way our community comes together to love and serve our neighbors.