SoZo Kids Club Leader strives to bring Christmas to Ocala National Forest

Some people arrive in The Villages wanting to be here.

LaRae Donnellan arrived in the Village of Dunedin from Tallahassee in October 2015 with her husband, Patrick “kicking and screaming.” She didn’t want to be here.

“Then I decided I could choose – like it or not like it,” she says. “So, I chose to like it. Actually, I drank the Kool-Aid. I love it here. I have more friends here than any other place I’ve lived.”

Striking her ‘Superwoman’ pose she uses to psych herself up for action, LaRae Donnellan’s first task as the new president of the SoZo Club of The Villages was to raise $4,500 in six weeks for a matching grant. She succeeded in bringing in $6,000 in the allotted time.

LaRae spent most of her career in college public relations and communications across the country after getting her doctorate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and even did a stint at the University of Wales in Cardiff. Her specialties include writing on and promoting agriculture and agricultural extension services.
One of the significant events in her Villages life happened on Oct. 9, 2016 when she first discovered the SoZo Kids organization. Officially known as The Help Agency Inc., (www.sozokids.org) it is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the thousands of children who live in abject poverty in the Ocala National Forest.

The organization is led by Pastor Dave Houck, an Assembly of God pastor who grew up in the Forest. LaRae brought the idea to her local neighborhood group, Loopers Way, and the group agreed that they wanted to help.

Tammy and Pastor Dave Houck head up the Help Agency and SoZo Kids to help break the generational cycle of poverty for families and children who live in the Ocala National Forest.

“We collected Wal-Mart gift cards and money,” she recounts. “Then I went to my first SoZo Kids’ Club meeting in February 2017 and found out about all of the things they really needed. I approached my neighbors with two pages of single-spaced notes. We decided to start by helping the food bank.”

That June, LaRae took on volunteer work on site at the SoZo Kids summer program.

“All of the sudden, in February last year I became president of the SoZo Kids Club of The Villages,” she says. “I thought it would be easy.”

It wasn’t. Her first and immediate project was raising $4,500 to meet a matching grant toward the SoZo dental bus. She had six weeks.

“I tried to be calm. No problem. I’m new to this, but I can do it,” she says, adding that she ended up raising $6,000 in the allotted time.

Her background experiences were good training for doing the seemingly impossible.

“I grew up in poverty in St. Paul, Minn., the youngest of seven,” she says. “I didn’t realize I was poor because everyone around me was also poor.”

She laughs ruefully.

“You know what it’s like the first day of high school and you see people with matching outfits,” she says. “This girl had an orange plaid skirt with a nice orange top and purse, and a white sweater. I thought, ‘Whoa, who dresses like that?’ I thought the only colors were black, brown, blue and white.”

She got her undergrad journalism degree on scholarships and, with some help from her grandmother and an uncle, got her Master’s in mass communication and graphic design from the University of Minnesota.

“Then I got into university public relations in the colleges of agriculture, believe it or not, city girl that I was,” she says.

Just before school starts each year, SoZo Kids and their supporters sponsor Backpack Day, where thousands of free school backpacks and shoes are distributed. Forest kids also get haircuts and stylings, back-to-school clothing, school supplies and toiletries. Part of the funding and items distributed at the event are collected by the SoZo Kids Club of The Villages.

With Christmas coming, the SoZo Kids Club is operating at full steam.

“We need everything for kids – boys and girls,” she says. “Good shoes for active kids, jeans, shirts, underwear, socks, teenage girls need bras and sports bras, they all need toiletries. The boys love Axe products and everyone can use dry shampoo, body spray and body wash. Some of these kids live in places without water,” she adds.

Anyone wishing to donate clothing or other items can take them to the North Lake Presbyterian Church, 975 Rolling Acres Road in Lady Lake on Mondays and Wednesdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and between 10 a.m. and noon on Fridays. There are drop boxes there for afterhours donations, but items must be clearly marked “For SoZo Kids.”

The SoZo Kids Club volunteers will also accept donations and gift cards at their office during open hours. Call the club office at (352) 753-8484 or contact LaRae at loopers.way@gmail.com. The items collected will be distributed at the annual SoZo Kids Christmas Party, which usually draws up to 1,500 children and their families.

One of the new SoZo Kids Club projects is working with the AT&T store in Sumter Landing to collect unused iPhones, iPads, chargers and other devices. AT&T refurbishes the equipment, erases any information from the previous owner and makes them available for the club to distribute.

“Some people ask, ‘Why does a kid need an iPhone when he or she doesn’t even have food or shoes?’ The kids in the Forest go to school and want to be like other kids. It’s important,” she says. “There’s no phone or internet service in much of the Forest area, but the kids download games and other standalone apps that let them be part of their peer group.”

LaRae Donnellan, president of the SoZo Kids Club of The Villages, says the greatest need for this holiday season is for donations in cash or gift cards to major retailers.

LaRae says another huge need is helping the kids go shopping for their families.

“We need nice things like jewelry, cosmetics, neat kitchen things and other items that parents, relatives or siblings might like,” she says. “We display everything collected in a big room and the kids ‘shop’ for their families. Then we gift wrap everything for them so they can feel part of Christmas, too.”

The most pressing and constant need is for money and gift cards.

“Pastor Dave has relationships with Wal-Mart and other places to get things at good prices,” she says. “A child is suddenly thrust into foster care and suddenly needs pajamas or a jacket or whatever. So, a $100 gift certificate becomes so much more when it can be used for immediate needs.”

In addition to spending many hours with SoZo Kids, LaRae is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, plays pickleball, Samba and loves movies. Clogging is her go-to activity; she takes classes with Clyde Hamilton at Bacall Rec Center.

“Clogging takes me to my happy place,” she smiles.

John W Prince is a writer and Villager. For more information visit www.GoMyStory.com. If you know of someone with a “Good Story,” contact John at John@GoMyStory.com.