All Stephanie Bowman wanted this Christmas was to give.
Especially to children who otherwise wouldn't have presents Christmas morn.
So Bowman and an army of volunteers did what they've done in years past. They collected teddy bears and dolls, diapers and cribs — even bags stuffed with gift cards donated by local businesses. And they crammed all of it in a 12-foot trailer just outside the makeshift office of her charity.
On Christmas Eve, Bowman and her volunteer elves were going to surprise more than 500 needy families.
Only now, they won't.
During the weekend, someone stole the trailer … and everything inside.
With the snip of a bolt cutter, thieves undid months of labor and an entire community's generosity.
Gone too was the promise of a magical Christmas morning for kids whose only hope was that Santa might give to them what their parents could not.
"What saddens my heart the most," said Bowman, staring at the now-empty parking lot, "is that we just can't show these families how much we care."
Bowman knows better than most the value of compassion.
Fifteen years ago, she was a drug addict.
She was hooked on crack — and a sorry excuse for a mother.
But in 1999, she got clean. It was a long and painful journey — one that had her on her knees, both praying to and questioning God.
But she kicked the habits and started life over. She was broke but no longer broken. She was ready to rebuild.
That was the Christmas everything changed. An anonymous donor provided gifts for her children after plucking their names off an angel donation tree.
It changed her.
"Knowing that somebody we didn't even know cared enough to provide Christmas for my kids — I can't even describe how it made me feel," she said. "It gave me great peace."
So Bowman vowed to pay it forward.
Two years ago, she formed One Heart for Women and Children. The group's goal was to meet the needs of disadvantaged mothers and kids. Bowman wouldn't mess around with bureaucratic red tape or lengthy applications. If you required clothes for your 4-year-old, she would get them. If you lost your oven in a fire, she would find a used one to replace it.
Leaders at other, more-established nonprofits have been impressed with her spirit and drive.
"She works so hard," said Cheryl Bellow, a program director with Specialized Treatment, Education and Prevention Services (STEP) Inc. "Basically, when she hears of a need, she just goes out and fills it. I don't know how she does it. But she does."
Bowman attributes her success to a wide network of supporters — everyone from the local businesses that make donations to the college kids who deliver presents on Christmas Eve.
Bowman is still determined to make those deliveries.
She's not sure how. The burglary report from the Sheriff's Office cited no witnesses. It offered no leads.
And the gifts are all gone — along with the agency's sleigh, the 12-foot white trailer that Bowman described as crucial to her mission.
But Bowman and her supporters are already trying. During my visit, her phone buzzed with an offer of another crib.
Bowman wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, thinking of the grandmother who, just this week, had taken custody of five children rescued from neglect. The grandmother had the will to turn her life upside down for these kids. She did not have the resources.
Her story is one of thousands in Central Florida.
And so Bowman will begin her Christmas crusade anew.
"This is not going to bring us down," she said. "If anything, it's going to bring us closer together — and make us even more determined."
If you'd like more information on One Heart for Women and Children, visit oneheartforwomenandchildren.org or call 321-299-4594. Monetary donations to "One Heart for Women and Children" can also be made at any local Wells Fargo branch.
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