Storm-struck residents finally have Christmas

On a chilly February night in Florida, a few children got exactly what they were dreaming of: a bright Christmas.

They had toys and a tree and a man in a Santa Claus hat and — especially — lights.

Here in Usher’s Trailer Park, residents missed Christmas on Dec. 25 because Hurricane Wilma destroyed the electrical hook-ups. They lived without power for 101 days until all the electricians and permits were in order and the work got done. The lights were switched on a week ago today.

And that’s why on Tuesday night, three pastors agreed it’s OK to throw a Christmas party just in time for Valentine’s Day.

“All the churches are here. It’s the whole community coming together to celebrate. It’s a little late, but not too late,” said the Rev. John Mericantante, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church.

The party was organized by Larry Wright, a political gadfly who works at the local flower shop. He had been moving behind the scenes for weeks to bring together the pastors and the electricians and the residents ever since he learned that Usher’s lacked power. And he vowed that when the lights came back on, he would bring Christmas to the park to celebrate.

“We’re giving them the Christmas they never had,” Wright said.

It started as the sky turned dark and a little tree lit up the lot. The artificial tree was draped with blue and gold garlands. The children lined up for coloring books and candy canes and stuffed animals. The women fawned over new purses and shoes.

They listened to a stereo play Joy to the World and I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, and they ate fried chicken and sandwiches.

It looked a lot like Christmas. Theodoro Rodriguez even took the opportunity to put up the colored lights around his mobile home that he missed during the season.

“Thank you to everybody,” he said. “The people are celebrating. People come to help celebrate, to bring Christmas and Christmas gifts.”

Residents in the run-down park are planning to keep the tree on for two weeks as a symbol of hope and progress. The Rev. David Broadbent, who raised the money to hire an electrician on behalf of the residents, said seeing the lights go on was one of those moments when he could truly understand the purpose of his mission.

“If it’s possible for you to smile in your heart, I smiled in my heart to see it happen,” Broadbent said. “You sometimes don’t get to see something as complete as the last trailer getting its lights on.”

Although the homes have their power back, there is still more to be done, Wright said. Seminole Ridge High School and a volunteer landscaper are going to restore green to the park, he said. A nearby hotel owner is working to get a few families a room rent-free, and a charitable organization is trying to bring in some double-wide mobile homes.

“A lot of people are just trying to help, and it probably fills a lot of people’s hearts with joy — and even mine,” said Leonor Calderon, 10, whose family has been living at Usher’s in a travel trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Because I lost my home also, and it kind of hurt, but in life you just have to move on.”

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