Giving Tree grows at AMI cafe

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Jackie Estes and her granddaughter, Jazzy Sparks, 8, are celebrating an island tradition with their “giving” Christmas tree. Islander Photo: Mike Dunn

Every holiday tradition has a story.

Just stop into Jackie Estes’ cozy cafe in Holmes Beach, help yourself to coffee and pull up a chair. Estes will tell you about an island tradition that started 24 years ago.

It’s the tale of a Christmas tree. But, this is no ordinary tree.

Estes calls it a Giving Tree.

It shines with the usual constellation of Yuletide accouterments: lights, ribbons, baubles. But this tree has something more — tags that call out for gifts for underprivileged children in the community.

Estes encourages her customers at Paradise Cafe, Bagels and Catering to pull a tag from the tree. Each tag references a child age 12 or younger and clothing size. The children’s names are withheld.

Customers then purchase clothing and toys to help make that child’s Christmas morning a little brighter. Estes then makes sure every child gets their gifts.

It’s a tradition that has been growing since Estes started it nearly a quarter-century ago. And, like many traditions, it started by accident.

Estes said her grandson mentioned one day that there was a girl at Anna Maria Elementary School who wore the same dress every day.

“Her shoes were taped,” Estes recalled.

Estes, who was a school volunteer, worked with the guidance counselor to solicit donations and provide new clothes and shoes, plus some needed household items for the child and her family.

As she learned of other kids and families with similar circumstances, Estes hit upon the idea of a Giving Tree.

“Each year, it has gotten more and more involved,” she said. “Our peak year, we probably had 75 kids. It’s just snowballed each year.”

As the island’s residential base has shifted over the years to rentals and a more well-to-do demographic, Estes said, there are fewer island kids. So the program has been extended to include youngsters from the mainland.

Estes won’t accept cash donations, but she gets assistance from friends, customers and others who provide contacts and help distribute gifts.

“Everyone’s been so good,” Estes said.

“Please come and get a tag,” she added. “We’ll make sure (your gift) goes where it needs to go.”

For more about the Giving Tree, call Estes at 941-779-1212 or visit the cafe at 3220 E. Bay Drive, Holmes Beach.