The smiles on every face at Manatee Middle School said it all, as 950 students held their new fleece blankets — Christmas gifts from Marco Lutheran Church.

For the third year, Manatee Middle students have received blankets from the Marco Lutheran Church Board of Human Care and church members who shopped for blankets that added to the growing stack in church entryway.

For more than a month and a half, the quilt stack at the church grew. Those who wished could donate money for Dory Catalano to buy more blankets.

Catalano headed the project but was unable to attend when each of the students picked out their own blankets from the stack.

After first period started, students were brought to the cafeteria one grade at a time, where the blankets were stacked on stage and around a Christmas tree. Each student politely waited in line for a turn at a special assembly on the last day of school before Christmas vacation.

Each student personally shook hands and thanked Betty Fry and Joyce Waidelich from Marco Lutheran, who were there to enjoy the excitement as the kids received their gifts. Many of the sixth graders took their chosen blankets from the package and wrapped themselves up or draped them over their heads.

In addition to receiving a blanket, 500 of the 950 students were eligible for the drawing for several donated new bicycles. Assistant principal Steve Brown drew names in a raffle as students cheered and clapped for each of the winners who got to select a bicycle to take home.

Students had to meet special criteria to be eligible. In August when school started until the current day, they could not have any major infractions or be late for class — not even once.

Principal Pamela Vickaryous and vice principal Rebecca Morhar and several teachers were present for the presentation. All the adult staff shared in the excitement of the moment.

Students bring hundreds of thank-you notes to the church after Christmas break. Catalano said she understands how much the blankets mean to the students. She keeps all of them in a special place at her house and cherishes every hand-written note.

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