’Tis the season of giving

Photos: Anthony Rao

Forget the expensive dress or the shiny watch. This holiday season, do something beneficial for the community and find out why it’s better to give than receive. 

This Christmas, the perfect gift can be found without shopping at retail stores or searching the internet for sweet deals.

The best gift you could give this holiday season is your time and talents.  

By volunteering, you may not be able to fix the world, but you can make your corner of it better. And the choices are endless. You can volunteer at a soup kitchen, read to children at a local library, make care packages for soldiers overseas or spend a few hours at a local animal shelter. 

People feel better about themselves and the world around them when they volunteer at local and national organizations. It truly is a great way to spread holiday cheer. 

Don’t take our word for it. Read about three volunteers whose lives have been enriched by helping people who need it the most. 

Kindness: It’s in his blood
Lowell Collins is a faithful donor.

Lowell Collins

Clutching a small rubber ball, Lowell Collins lies back and relaxes as a nurse preps his arm for the needle. Several minutes later, he begins squeezing the ball and pumping blood into a bag. He smiles.

It’s the same smile he was worn for the past 66 years. 

Simply put, Lowell derives satisfaction from knowing he is potentially saving a life. 

Since 1953, the lifelong Umatilla resident has faithfully donated 158 gallons of blood and 137 gallons of platelets that go to cancer patients. And he has chalked up 20,000 miles while making the drive from his home to OneBlood in Leesburg and back. 

Turning 90 hasn’t slowed him down. He visits the Leesburg office 24 times a year—the maximum number of times someone can donate platelets in a year. 

“I’ve maxed out my visits for the past 25 years,” says Lowell, who spent 21 years as a branch manager at an Orlando bank. “It’s just a habit that I love.” 

That habit started after he was honorably discharged from the Air Force and returned to Umatilla. A preacher’s wife asked him to donate blood because her husband was having surgery. 

“I didn’t mind it, so I just kept on going,” he says.

He began donating blood at Waterman Hospital (now AdventHealth Waterman) and then Lake Square Mall. Lowell was not deterred when OneBlood moved its location to North Boulevard in Leesburg, forcing him to make a 30-mile roundtrip. 

“I’ve never worried about the extra mileage I put on my vehicles because it’s all for a good cause,” he says. 

Since it takes two hours to donate platelets, Lowell spends that time drinking coffee, watching television or mingling with employees. Although he’s a seasoned blood donor, he still hasn’t overcome his fear of needles.  

“To this day, I still shut my eyes when they insert the needle,” he says while laughing. 

For him, a needle prick is a small price to pay for people who desperately need blood.  

“There are all kinds of sicknesses and accidents that occur,” Lowell says. “Donating blood is something that is desperately needed. Even if I only save one life then I’m satisfied.” 

Answering the bell
Ding! Ding! Patrick Leap rings for the Salvation Army. 

Patrick Leap is hardly one to brag. When he humbly describes himself, he’s just a guy with a bell, a red Salvation Army apron and a heart to give of himself during the holiday season. 

Yet, of all the volunteer bell ringers for the Salvation Army of Lake and Sumter County, none brought in more money than Patrick in 2018. During the months of November and December, he volunteered 126 hours and collected $5,125.62. 

From his spot at Publix in the Mulberry Grove Plaza Shopping Center in The Villages, he doesn’t perform special dances or forcefully ask people to donate. 

He’s just himself. 

“I just say, ‘How you doing?’ or ‘I hope you’re having a nice holiday season,’” says Patrick, a 54-year-old resident of Weirsdale. “If they want to give me something, that’s great. If not, that’s cool, too.”

Because Patrick has been a bell ringer at that same location for five years, many people remember him. Others recognize him from the various town squares, where he and his girlfriend frequent to enjoy live bands. 

“When I go to the squares, I try and get to know everybody and I get along with people very well,” he says. “I’m very personable. As a result, when the people I meet on the squares see my collecting money for the Salvation Army, they’re more inclined to give a little.”

From Thanksgiving to Christmas, Patrick braves both hot and cold weather three days a week. He observes people who smile, people who look away and, on occasion, some people who snarl at him. The snarls come with the bell-ringer territory. 

“I don’t mind it,” he says. “I try to focus on the generous people who donate.”

Some drop a few coins, and some drop a few bucks. If he’s lucky, someone might drop a $20 bill. But what he really enjoys are the unsolicited conversations. 

“People will just walk right up to me and ask what I’ve been doing all year, or they’ll ask if I get tired of ringing the bell. And yes, sometimes I get tired of hearing it,” he says.

But he’ll never grow tired of his holiday gig. 

“It keeps me out of trouble,” he says. 

A hunger for helping
Florence Codding performs administrative duties at a food bank.

Florence Codding

If asked to picture what hunger looks like, most people would conjure up images of malnourished people in third-world countries.

Florence Codding knows that hunger hits much closer to home. 

As a volunteer with Lake Cares Food Pantry in Mount Dora, her passion is to lessen what she considers the shame of a country where 41 million people face hunger, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Each month, she sees hundreds of people—elderly, homeless, disabled, the working poor—visit the food bank just to help put dinner on the table. In fact, Lake Cares Food Pantry served 441,000 meals in 2018. The organization receives donated food from the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, as well as churches, businesses and individuals.

“People have events happen in life that are unexpected, and we’re here to help them get through tough times,” Florence says. “We often hear some very sad stories, but we’re there to listen and provide encouragement.”

Florence, a resident of Eustis, began volunteering at the organization shortly after it opened in April 2009. She had recently retired after spending 24 years as a secretary at First National Bank of Mount Dora. 

“I worked full time and was raising a family, so I had very little time to volunteer,” she says. “When I retired, I thought it was time to give back to the community.” 

Florence volunteers eight hours each week. Her primary responsibility entails maintaining an inventory list of all the food given out at the organization’s main office, as well as five satellite offices throughout Lake County. She also maintains a record of where each food item is donated from, logs volunteer hours and tracks how many pounds of food are given to each individual or family. 

“The great thing about Florence is that she has compassion for the people we serve and passion for our organization and its mission,” says Irene O’Malley, executive director of Lake Cares Food Pantry. “Those are the two most important qualities to be a great volunteer.”

For Florence, there’s no doubt that helping needy people feeds a hunger inside her. 

“It’s so wonderful to see how appreciative people are when they’re being provided meals,” she says. “I’m also honored to volunteer alongside a great group of people.” 



Man on the Street
My favorite holiday memory, tradition or gift.

“I grew up very poor in New Hampshire, and my dad had just passed away. I was walking around the old Woolworth’s store, listening to the music and everything, and I was kind of sad because I knew we, my sister, brother and mother, were not going to have much of a Christmas. I was about 12. It was snowing, and as I looked down, in the snow was a $20 bill. I picked it up and took it in to the store manager, and said, ‘I think somebody lost this.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll keep it for 24 hours and if no one claims it, you can come back and get it.’ So, 24 hours later, I went back, and no one had claimed it. My family was able to have the best Christmas ever with a nice Christmas dinner and gifts for each of us. It was really special.” —Ed Abbott, Leesburg

“My daughter is my best gift. She’s a gift I didn’t think I would have or deserved because she (Sakura, 3) was a hard pregnancy.” —Natasha Laville, Leesburg

“I love when my family is all together. I love when we wake up on Christmas morning, we’re all still in our PJs before we open our presents. After that, more family members come by. We make food, eat together, and it’s just a lot of fun.” -—Shianne Demarest, Eustis

“My most memorable Christmas was a gift for my best friend, Neil, who has passed away. He was a big Batman fan. I managed to get him a small, inflatable Batmobile replica from the 1966 ‘Batman’, and I never saw him smile any bigger. He loved it, and it is one of the best memories I’ve ever had.” —Dave Hickman, Leesburg 


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