Photo Courtesy of Dennis Stepka. Dennis Stepka dressed as Santa with 20 underprivileged kids.

For 20 years, members of the local Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie 3566, have hosted the Boone’s Kids Annual Christmas Party at Lopez Elementary School, giving underprivileged children shoes and other gifts.

This year, the event was held on December 18. Jim Boone started this fundraiser in 1998, but had to move to Michigan several years ago due to health issues. Fellow Fraternal Order of Eagles member Dennis Stepka promised his friend eight years ago that he would continue the tradition.

Stepka has dressed up as Santa Claus for the event every year since he took over, spreading Christmas cheer to the 15 to 20 underprivileged children that are chosen with the help of the school guidance counselor. The children were 5 and 6 years old. These children are chosen to receive gifts, visit with Santa and have lunch. They receive two pairs of shoes, 12 pairs of socks, pajamas, two outfits, jackets, hats, blankets, a razor scooter and one toy. The girls also get a doll and the boys get a remote control car. “Most of the children don’t want a lot of toys, they just want something to play with, and most of them want clothes,” said Stepka. He said that the kids are very appreciative.

Last year, Stepka noticed a little boy that did not open his bag full of gifts and never even looked in the bag. Stepka asked the boy why. The boy said that his brother at home was not going to get any gifts, so he wanted to save them for him.

According to Stepka, he has been a part of the Fraternal Order of Eagles for 28 years.

The Fraternal Order of Eagles is an international non-profit organization uniting fraternally in the spirit of liberty, truth, justice and equality to make human life more desirable by lessening its ills and promoting peace, prosperity, gladness and hope. The organization was created in 1898.

Stepka asks local businesses to be sponsors to help raise money for the gifts and event. Sponsors include Odiorne Insurance Agency, Hungry Howie’s, Terry Fink State Farm and Bubba Que’s. Stepka and his friend Carol Hall are the main people that put the event together. Guidance counselor Lisa Hall also plays a big part in the event. “The most rewarding aspect is seeing the excitement and the appreciation of the children for what they have received,” said Stepka.

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Nick Nahas has written for the Osprey Observer since 2016. He has lived in the Valrico area since 2002 and has his bachelor’s degree in mass communications from the University of South Florida. He is dedicated to covering sports in Hillsborough County at every level.