Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 2nd 2014

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Santa’s Appetite?

Local Nonprofit Plays Santa
by Jeremy Morrison

The 2-year-old wants a toy tea set. The 10-year-old wants a wallet. Another kid’s hoping for a pogo stick.

Pretty average Christmas gifts. But these aren’t average kids. And the wish-list gifts are not all-encompassing seasonal obsessions. They are heartbreaking distractions.

But as heartbreaking distractions go, a pogo stick is probably a pretty good choice.

“I didn’t even know they still made pogo sticks,” said Marcus Ditty, development and operations director for Appetite 4 Life.

That doesn’t mean too much. Ditty should not be considered a toy-expert.

“I wouldn’t know the difference between a skateboard and a scooter,” he said, standing in a room containing both a skateboard and a scooter, as well as mounds of other toys.

Ditty looked around the room. There were Tonka trucks and a Sit’n Spin. There were clothes and books. There were bags of unknowns that’d require a shake and a guess.

“This is crazy,” Ditty said, holding up a pink Disney Princess bike.

These toys are destined for kids who might not otherwise have too much under the tree this Christmas. Like many other charitable organizations, Appetite 4 Life strives to brighten some holidays by collecting donated gifts for children.
But this toy drive is a little different. Take last year, for example, when they moved Christmas a few days up on the calendar. They did that so a mother—who was beating the diagnostic odds each day she lived past Thanksgiving—and a child could celebrate the season.

“We actually took the Christmas presents to the hospital early so she could have Christmas with her child,” Ditty said.

Appetite 4 Life collects Christmas gifts for area children whose lives have been impacted by HIV. Some of the children are infected with the disease, while others have family members who are sick.
Ditty describes the overall experience as “very moving.”

“It’s really, really moving when you see all these donors and how involved they get with these kids,” he said.

While he doesn’t know too much about toys—“Legos were Legos when I was growing up”—Ditty seems to have a pretty good handle on the human condition. Or, at least he’s pretty good at shining light into dark places.

One year, he recalled, the Gulf Breeze Police Department donated all the bikes it had impounded. The Appetite crew loaded up a van and spread the joy.

“Seeing the look on their faces,” Ditty reflected. “They were jumping up and down, they couldn’t control the excitement. It was very moving.”

This is the fourth year the organization has conducted its 56 Fund. The first year, the group served 56 children—hence the name—that were already plugged into the meal-providing charity. Last year, that number was up to 87.
“We’re looking to do at least that or more this year,” Ditty said.

Appetite 4 Life accepts donated gifts from community members and delivers them to the children. But there’s a little more to it.

“It’s not that they’re getting a present for Christmas,” Ditty explained. “They’re getting their present.”

Instead of taking generic donations to random kids, Appetite finds out what each child on its list is hoping to get for Christmas.

“So, it’s not just a canned here’s-your-doll, you’re-2-years-old-here’s-you’re-doll,’” Ditty said. “We take the time to actually go and talk to the kids and ask them what they want for Christmas.”

The requests are the same as any American kid might make. Bikes and skateboards. Even clothes, though Ditty suspects that may have been a parental write-in. This year, one little girl wants singer Taylor Swift’s new perfume.
“I know, right?” Ditty laughs. “—it’s kids.”

For someone who’s an admitted novice when it comes to toys—“I was the kid asking for books”—Ditty has his work cut out for him. He stood amongst Appetite’s stash of toys and surveyed the task in front of him.
“I get to play Santa Claus today,” he said.

The presents will be delivered a few days before Christmas. While most of the wish-list items have been donated, Ditty said there’s usually a few last-minute needs if there are people still wishing to contribute (give Appetite 4 Life a call at 470-9111).

“It’s never too late,” he said, adding that the group is already organizing next year’s toy drive.

Most of the gift requests are fairly modest (humbling even, considering the circumstances). The kids know they need to stick to a $25 limit—not that the donors pay attention to that guideline.

“Razor Scooters are not $25,” Ditty laughed.

While there’s plenty of fun and games in Appetite’s bag of Christmas cheer, some gifts reflect the maturity of a child facing the harshness of their unfortunate reality.

“We had one kid last year, all she wanted was books,” Ditty said.

Asking for books for Christmas. That is impressive. But the girl—the oldest child in her family—was requesting books well below her reading level.

“The reason she wanted the books was so that she could read to her twin sisters,” Ditty explained. “It really makes you take a step back and look at your life.”