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Kids leave concerns at skating rink’s edge

Shannon Bryner, a volunteer at Golden Skateworld’s annual party for Spotsylvania County students in need, helps Jack Vaughan, 9, makes his way around the edge of the rink Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. The event was organized by the skate center’s owner, Patricia Slater, and four area churches helped to provide volunteers and donations. (GRIFFIN MOORES / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

Today will be bittersweet for Lisa Scharmin, who finds Christmas a challenge after three successive deaths in her family—her husband, her father and then her mother.

And this year, the Christmas spirit was even harder to find for the Spotsylvania County mom who is determined to wear a smile no matter what life throws at her. She and her two youngest sons have been living in a motel since May, when their landlord was foreclosed.

Scharmin hasn’t been able to work because of family issues—after the deaths of her husband and her father just six weeks apart in 2008, she spent most of her time taking care of her sick mother. After her mother died, one of Scharmin’s sons suffered from severe depression and required extra care.

Still, Scharmin is determined to make the best of their situation. She bought a small tree at Goodwill for $6 and placed donated presents around the small motel room she shares with her sons.

And Tuesday afternoon, she brought the boys to a roller-skating party, which got them out of the motel room, where the only chance at privacy comes from locking yourself in the bathroom.

The annual Christmas party at Golden Skateworld of Fredericksburg aims to provide exactly that—an opportunity for homeless students in Spotsylvania County schools to have fun.

“It gives them a chance to be kids, to be fun and silly and not worry about anything,” said Michelle Patton Swisher, the social worker who helps the school system’s homeless students, which includes those who are living in shelters, in motels and doubled up with relatives.

The annual party began three years ago when the owner of Golden Skateworld read a newspaper story about Swisher and her work with hundreds of homeless kids in the school division.

“I just had no idea there were that many kids,” Patricia Slater said. “And I thought, ‘What do they do for Christmas?’”

She immediately wanted to hold a party, with skating and pizza. And she envisioned each child walking out the door with a candy cane.

But could it be done? Slater wondered. It seemed like a lot of work and maybe a party wasn’t what the families needed.

“I almost didn’t call Michelle because I knew I couldn’t do it by myself and I didn’t think I could get volunteers on Christmas Eve,” Slater said.

She wavered, then decided to try out the idea. She mentioned it to her congregation at Living Word Lutheran Church. Almost instantly, she had a group of volunteers. She called Swisher who assured her that the families would love a Christmas party.

Then, Slater and some other volunteers met at Starbucks to plan the party. A group from Vine Covenant Ministries was meeting at the next table over. They overheard the plans and jumped on board. Then, members of Hope Christian Fellowship also got involved.

“By the time the event rolled around, volunteers were being turned away,” Slater said.

The first party included pizza for about 70 children and their parents, toys, candy, hats, gloves, goodies and cards for a free meal at Chick–fil–A. And the party keeps growing as more people learn of it and want to help.

This year, the festivities included a cookie-decorating station replete with fat sugar cookies, thick icing and colorful candies, provided by Chef Nancy’s Bakery. And the children received some expert skating tips from members of the Five 40 Roller Girls derby team.

Santa stopped by with garbage bags filled with toys, board games and puzzles for each child. And each one also got a goody bag filled with candy and other treats. Each family received a gift card to Walmart and a grocery bag filled with fruit and foods that could provide breakfasts and lunches to make up for the free meals the students miss when school isn’t in session.

At the last minute, teens from Trinity Bible Church jumped in to help assemble goody bags.

“It’s just amazing how it’s grown from a candy cane and pizza to all of this,” said Slater as she stood in a room filled with presents. “I really do feel like God’s hand is in this because this doesn’t just happen . . . and to think it was an idea I almost didn’t follow through with.”

The parents are grateful Slater followed that idea.

“This takes some guilt off me,” said Jeanette Hunt as her 11-year-old daughter, Christina, bounced on the trampoline at Golden Skateworld. “Because I try to have games for her to do but it’s hard.”

The mother and daughter have been living in a motel since September as they sit on a waiting list for the subsidized housing that they could afford on Jeanette’s disability payments. The small room provides little space for Christina to play and no privacy. Jeanette had to send Christina into the bathroom while she wrapped the presents she was able to buy after some intense bargain hunting.

Jeanette told her daughter that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill her Christmas wish list because most of their money goes toward paying for the motel room.

She is grateful that a generous community has stepped up to give her and Christina a merry Christmas.

“It’s been a lot of help,” Jeanette said.

Amy Flowers Umble: 540/735-1973