FRUIT COVE, FL - DECEMBER 18: The Red Coats of THE PLAYERS Championship present a golf cart to Catholic Charities Bureau during a Camp I Am Special December Day Camp on December 18, 2021 in Fruit Cove, Florida. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR)

Tees the Season for Red Coat Surprises

FRUIT COVE, FL - DECEMBER 18: The Red Coats of THE PLAYERS Championship present a golf cart to Catholic Charities Bureau during a Camp I Am Special December Day Camp on December 18, 2021 in Fruit Cove, Florida. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR)

Volunteer Chairpersons spread holiday cheer with surprise donations to local nonprofits

There's Dasher and Dancer, and Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen. But the Red Coat reindeer also know a thing or two about spreading holiday cheer.

When local nonprofits see the Red Coats coming, they have a feeling that something extra special could be in store for them.

This was the case for many local nonprofits over the past two weeks, when the Red Coats surprised them with charitable donations as part of their Red Coats grant awards, an annual tradition that provides charitable funding to dozens of nonprofits in the five-county area to support their programs and services.

This year, 51 local organizations received Red Coats grants, with several receiving surprise, in-person visits from the Red Coat reindeer, including Gabriel House of Care, Angelwood, Sanctuary on 8th Street, The Giving Closet Project and Camp I Am Special.

“It’s the calm in our storm.”

Paul Vasiloff and his wife, Vicky, stumbled across the Gabriel House of Care after being referred to Mayo Clinic for an oncology trial to treat Paul’s aggressive form of leukemia.

Little did they know that the Gabriel House of Care would be “a total blessing.”

Gabriel House of Care provides affordable lodging in a “Community of Healing” to adult cancer and transplant patients and their caregivers who come to Jacksonville for life-saving treatments and procedures. Its doors first opened in 2011 and since then has served more than 6,500 patients and their caregivers.

“We’ve been at this for a year now with his journey, and it’s been go, go, go,” said Vicky. “As soon as we walked in [the Gabriel House of Care], it was peaceful."

“It’s easy to get discouraged and down,” Paul shared, “but the people here are able to help each other through that process.”

While sharing a meal with its residents, the Red Coats surprised Gabriel House of Care with a $2,000 grant to support its services and programs, specifically funding to allow patients to stay longer while receiving treatments, support for its Community of Healing programming, which helps patients and caregivers in reducing stress, and lodging for its veteran residents.

“You are so stressed with a potential life-threatening illness like he has...But when you come back here and you get a hug from the staff, you have guests that are now your friends...just the environment is one of peace and nurturement...it’s the biggest gift...it’s the calm in our storm.”

“The Red Coats’ donation makes it possible for our services to go far beyond our building.”

For more than 25 years, Angelwood has been serving children, adults, seniors, and families living with intellectual and developmental differences such as Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down Syndrome and Spina Bifida. Since its beginnings in 1993, the organization has grown from one group home for three children with developmental disabilities to serving over 300 area children and adults through a variety of programs.

One of Angelwood’s central programs is its Day Training Program, designed to provide individuals with intellectual and developmental differences a creative and meaningful place to spend their day after graduation from high school.

Angelwood applied for a Red Coat grant to request funding to help start a coffee café that would help participants gain marketable vocational skills, such as handling cash and credit transactions, customer service, communication and interpersonal skills with peers and customers, as well as how to take instruction and direction from a supervisor.

When the Red Coats visited with Angelwood’s participants earlier this month, they brought donuts, hot chocolate and one extra special treat...a $7,500 check to help transform Angelwood’s coffee café from a dream to a reality.

“The Red Coats’ donation to Angelwood for the Coffee Café makes it possible for our services to go far beyond our building,” said Angelwood CEO Diane Tuttle. “It gives us the opportunity to provide skill building that may lead to employment in the community for individuals living with developmental differences on the First Coast.”

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“The playground piece is just going to add a whole new trajectory for the campus.”

For more than 20 years, Sanctuary on 8th Street has provided opportunities for children and families in need through education, social services, recreation, and the arts. The program has grown tremendously, from a dozen children to currently over 100 children who participate in its afterschool and summer camp programs.

“It means a lot to me and my community because it’s somewhere we can come after school, have homework help, tutoring and help every step of the way,” said Keyshawn D., a participant at Sanctuary on 8th Street.

Keyshawn and his friends at the center were looking forward to learning which of them would be declared the champion of the gingerbread decorating contest hosted by the Red Coats.

While they were expecting recognition for their artistic efforts after the judging concluded, they were instead surprised with a $7,500 grant to purchase playground equipment for the program’s new community center.

“The playground piece is just going to add a whole new trajectory for the campus,” said Sanctuary on 8th Street Executive Director Rick Cartledge. “We’re such a big proponent of free play, and this piece of equipment is just a blessing to the children.”

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“Thanks to THE PLAYERS’ generous donation, The GCP can improve its visibility and truly show the impact we are making throughout the community.”

One of the most crippling problems school districts face across the country is poverty. Lack of resources, whether it is food, school supplies, hygiene products, or clothing, has a detrimental impact on not only a student’s academic success, but also their social, emotional, and behavioral growth. One former educator, Jennifer Smith, saw first-hand the negative effects poor hygiene had on students and their success in school. These problems affecting our students range from living in unstable environments, homelessness and access to resources. In addition, a major problem reported by Northeast Florida schools is a dysfunctional or forgotten lost and found system to serve its students.

Smith saw these needs and knew she needed to do something. That’s when she created The Giving Closet Project (GCP), a nonprofit that was developed out of the desire to help schools revitalize their lost and found into successful donation centers for students in need.

Currently, The Giving Closet Project gets about 70 referrals a week, and Smith and her team put together custom care packages filled with a week’s worth of clothes, a month’s worth of hygiene products, shoes, new socks and underwear and other supplies requested.

Demand for The Giving Closet Project’s services has continued to increase, and Smith applied for a Red Coat grant to support the program’s expansion.

The Red Coats paid a visit to The Giving Closet Project’s hub located on the campus of Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School =to help Smith and her team assemble care packages. They also came with a $10,000 check and announced that Smith had received a Red Coat grant award.

"This $10,000 donation means so much to our organization, as grants in the Jacksonville area are few and far between,” said Smith. “We are putting this donation towards a much-needed marketing blueprint and the rebuild of our outdated website. Thanks to THE PLAYERS’ generous donation, the GCP can improve its visibility and truly show the impact we are making throughout the community.”

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“This is my favorite present!”

Spirits were at an all-time high on Saturday, December 19, at Camp I Am Special, a camp for people with intellectual and developmental differences, and physical disabilities that is operated by Catholic Charities Jacksonville. That’s because it was the first camp held in over two years, after COVID forced the organization to suspend its in-person camps.

Little did the campers, staff and volunteers know that they were in for an extra special holiday treat during the festivities at Winter Day Camp.

Camp I Am Special applied for a Red Coat grant to request funding for a new six-seater golf cart that would be used to transport campers, as several camp activities are not within easy walking distance for campers with various health issues, and a cart also allows on-site health professionals to respond to emergencies and/or bring campers back to a safe location in the case of inclement weather.

While several Red Coats mingled with the campers, 2022 Tournament Chairman Matt Welch drove up in a new red, six-seater golf cart, adorned with streamers and balloons. Campers and staff erupted with cheers and immediately ran up to the cart to check it out for themselves. They were also treated to donuts that were donated by one of THE PLAYERS’ food partners, Mini Bar.

“I heard one of the campers say, “This is great, this is my favorite present!” said Lori Webber, Regional Director of Catholic Charities Jacksonville.

“I’ll try to say it without crying,” said Camp I Am Special Camp Director Rebecca Aleman, when asked about what support from THE PLAYERS means to them. “It is just so great. You guys have helped us in so many ways. It really is the heart of our program. It really helps us do what we need to do to serve others.”

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