Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

SANTA DELIGHTS HOMELESS KIDS; Their Family's Situation Is Tough, but at Least Youngsters See Season's Kindness

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

SANTA DELIGHTS HOMELESS KIDS; Their Family's Situation Is Tough, but at Least Youngsters See Season's Kindness

Article excerpt

Byline: Adam Kealoha Causey

Stephanie Coleman hooked a candy cane on the lip of her coffee cup Sunday - an attempt to add peppermint flavor to her Christmas dose of pick-me-up.

Cutting the bitter taste just a little helped get the drink down. And a jolt of caffeine is necessary when your kids have a 6 a.m. appointment with Santa Claus.

The 26-year-old and her three children - ages 5, 4 and three months - live at downtown Jacksonville's I.M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless. St. Nick handed out gifts to all 60 of the youngsters staying there this weekend. About 30 volunteers also were on hand to spread holiday cheer. They cooked and served breakfast and handed out backpacks filled with toiletries, blankets and gloves to hundreds.

Just like the candy in that cup of coffee, 26-year-old Coleman said the folks at Sulzbacher have eased the pain of life that can be so hard to swallow. A cup of comfort feels best on Christmas Day.

Money got tight earlier this year when her infant's father went to jail, Coleman said. She was pregnant with the boy and had two girls to feed and clothe already. She tried staying with family and friends when she couldn't make rent but soon realized she needed more than a couch to sleep on now and then.

Staying at a homeless shelter seemed scary, Coleman said. She didn't want to sleep on the floor with a bunch of people she didn't know. But Sulzbacher offers privacy to families.

"When I got the key to my room, I felt a lot better," Coleman said. "I believe we got here on a prayer - my prayer."

She cried as she recounted the kindness she's seen and the lessons she's learned. Thanks to a center class, Coleman has quit smoking, something she used to do even while carrying a child. Not buying cigarettes saves her money and, she hopes, will save her health. She's inspired by staff who once lived at Sulzbacher, too.

"They love on our kids and everything," Coleman said. "Everybody here's like a big family."

Alora Gordon, Coleman's 5-year-old daughter, who was decked out in Hello Kitty gear, put her imagination to work as she waited on a plate that included a cheese omelette, hash brown and fruit. She pointed and said Santa's reindeer were parked "out back" while he visited kids.

"I wrote down what I wanted," Alora said. "A house, a car, a DSi." That'd be Nintendo's handheld video gaming system.

Volunteer Chris Stone coordinated the backpack giveaway for Sulzbacher residents. She's done that for five years. Her family buys items that don't get donated. She starts working on the project each October.

Waking up early on Christmas morning to help others is a tradition for Stone's children. While she moves efficiently from room to room making sure everyone receives a bag, it's obvious this is more than just a task. …

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