Shiny new bicycles are waiting for children to ride them, thanks to generous sponsors, such as Bechtel Financial.
What began out of need is now one of the most successful holiday fundraisers in Tampa Bay – thanks in part to the generosity of people who call Pinellas home.
The 19th annual Ride & Run with the Stars is Saturday, Dec. 1, at Fort De Soto Park. The brainchild of two former Pinellas County Sheriff’s employees, the event is a major fundraiser for the Sheriff’s Christmas Sharing Project that helps families, children and victims of crime during the holiday season.
“It was originally started by two members of law enforcement because of the number of families that needed help around the holidays,” said Marianne Pasha, public information coordinator at the Sheriff’s Office. “Deputies see the need every day in homes and at schools. They see families and kids trying hard in tough economic times that just need a break, especially during the holidays.”
The originators were bicycle enthusiasts and running was very popular at the time, Pasha said, so the idea was to have a bike and sporting event. Ride & Run with the Stars always happens on the first Saturday in December and it always takes place at Fort De Soto – rain or shine.
Since its humble beginnings in 1993, Ride & Run with the Stars has become one of the largest holiday fundraisers in Tampa Bay organized by law enforcement. The event has raised more than $500,000 and assisted hundreds of families and thousands of children during the holiday season and throughout the rest of the year.
Ride & Run with the Stars is a family event with activities for every age group. Sporting bouts include a 25-mile bike ride, 10K family ride, 5K certified race and 1-mile fun walk or skate.
Registration for each adult participant is $25. Children get in free if accompanied by a registered adult. Registration includes a long-sleeve T-shirt, food and giveaways for participants. Grand prizes are high quality bicycles.
Other activities include a silent auction for sports gear, getaways and gift baskets. All-ages can test their skills on the 25-foot “Everest Challenge” climbing wall. The highlight for most is the visit from Santa, Mrs. Claus and their elf.
Registration opens at 7 a.m. and the kick-off for the 25-mile bike ride is at 8 a.m. The silent auction is scheduled from 8 to 10 a.m. The 10K family ride begins at 8:15 a.m. followed by the 5K certified race at 8:30 a.m. Best times for runners in designated groups will be recognized. The 1-mile fun walk or skate starts at 8:30 a.m.
Santa, Mrs. Claus and their elf are scheduled to arrive in the Sheriff’s Office helicopter at 10 a.m. Special drawings and presentations start at 10:15 a.m.
Advance registration is available at RideandRunwiththeStars.com, and entry forms are available through the Sheriff’s Office, 10750 Ulmerton Road, Largo. Call 582-6200.
“It’s really a fun event,” Pasha said. “You can register that day. You don’t have to run or ride. You can take a walk and spend time with family and friends. The kids really enjoy the visit from Santa. You can do something good to help someone out and still have the afternoon to do something else.”
Pasha said the Christmas Sharing Project lets the Sheriff’s Office be more proactive in its approach.
“We know who needs help,” she said.
Anyone on the Sheriff’s staff can nominate individuals or families that need help. School crossing guards and school resource officers, as well as advocates for victims of crimes are aware of those who need help.
“They see these families every day. They see their struggle and know they’re trying hard,” Pasha said.
The parents or caregivers complete a wish list. Typical items are socks, shoes, coloring books and crayons.
“They don’t ask for the big stuff,” Pasha said. “They ask for things other children have that they don’t.”
The families are screened for need, mostly to make sure they are not relying on the “generosity of several different groups,” she said.
About a week after Ride & Run with the Stars, uniformed deputies and volunteers go shopping. This year they’ll be filling wish lists at the Target store on Park Street. Each deputy or volunteer takes a wish list and fills it within the amount budgeted.
A money allowance is set for each age group, middle school, elementary and pre-school. Shoppers also include wrapping paper and bows that the caregivers will use to wrap presents for the kids.
“Within a couple of hours, we’ll spend upwards of $28,000,” she said.
The spending all depends on the success of the fundraiser. The more people who participate at Ride & Run, the more money there is to spend on community needs.
The beauty of the Christmas Share Project is that it allows Sheriff’s employees to tailor what they give to the need of the family, Pasha said. But that takes money.
“We have families with six kids and all kinds of different situations,” Pasha said. “We reserve some of the money for fires or other holiday tragedies. We try to get them food, a blanket and as well as a holiday gift to try give them some relief.”
Deputies help Santa by delivering some of the gifts with deliveries going out even on Christmas Day. Other family members pick up their packages at the Sheriff’s Office or other locations where they feel safe.
Thanks to the generosity of Bechtel Financial, in recent years hundreds of new bicycles have been distributed through the Christmas Sharing Project. Raymond James and civic groups adopt families, which allows more families to get help.
“There’s a wonderful response from the community,” Pasha said.
Individuals or groups interested in adopting a family can call victim advocate Sandra Garcia-Olivares at 582-6465.
Deputies deliver Thanksgiving dinners to families thanks to assistance from Publix and area churches, which also provide turkey and ham dinners on Christmas.
Pasha said it was a rewarding experience. Deputies often get thank you notes.
Pasha said one of the best things “is when one year you help a family and the next year, they let you know they don’t need anything. They’re OK.”