Animal House: Playing Santa to the homeless and their pets

Animal House: Playing Santa to the homeless and their pets
Homeless guest Jessie and his dogs, Tinkerbell & Midnight

Cynthia Saben, employee of the Jacksonville Electric Authority and dedicated animal advocate, had an idea in November 2018 that would have a profound impact on her life. She wanted to provide a hot breakfast and an equally warm helping of respect, care and assistance to the homeless and their pets, on Christmas morning. She chose Main Street Park as the breakfast location, where she had seen many homeless people with pets congregate. She posted a message on Facebook, explained her idea and requested volunteers or donations. Saben expected that she and a couple of friends would hand out biscuits, gravy and juice that first Christmas.

“Cynthia is a caring person who always sees the homeless and wants to help them. After Thanksgiving she called me and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing on Christmas morning?’” Michelle Blanco said. “She literally put that first Christmas Breakfast in the Park together in one month.”

Blanco, a San Jose resident, works in contract logistics warehousing and is a volunteer animal rescue transporter with Saben. She also was thrilled to volunteer for an event to help the homeless and their pets. Blanco adopted her lab/pit bull-mix senior dog, Chopper, from a family facing eviction when their landlord abruptly decided to prohibit pit bulls.

Christmas Breakfast in the Park (CBITP) was the inspiring result of Saben’s original idea. Fifty volunteers responded during the month before Christmas 2018. Enough donations poured in, along with Saben and her friends’ personal contributions, to feed 350 people plus pets. They were even able to provide some basic personal necessities for guests plus some supplies and toys for their pets.

“I was astonished at the response. So many people wanted to help! It grew to three tents and 60 dozen eggs the first Christmas,” she said. “I knew that the homeless shared whatever food they had with their pets. I wanted to be sure that on Christmas morning at least, they would have a generous hot meal for themselves and food for the animals they love. Their pets are homeless, too, out in all weather with no shelter, enduring the same hardships as their owners.”

In preparation for the second CBITP in 2019, Saben chose Confederate Park and repeated her Facebook message. Many volunteers returned, the list of donors and supporters grew, and the city offered portable toilets and garbage collection. Saben hoped there might be enough left-over donated funds to pay the application fee required to form a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization.

The 2019 event drew a line of people waiting at Confederate Park before 8 a.m. Not only did Saben and her elves deliver Christmas breakfast to the homeless and pets in Confederate Park, they also provided dinners to many in the surrounding neighborhoods. Approximately 400 hot meals were served. Left-over food, juice and coffee were delivered to the Cathedral Residences Senior Living centers downtown and to the Hands & Feet Foundation Westside, stretching the outreach and positive impact of CBITP even further.

“This was a small spark of an idea that became two Christmas morning events to help needy people and pets. How the community rallied to participate has been amazing. We had many more volunteer cooks this Christmas. Increased donations bought extra personal care items that people needed, like socks and toiletries,” Saben said. “Both years American Legion Post #137 members volunteered and donated, with special thanks to Richard Lane, Commander of American Legion #137 and Roger Jones, both repeat volunteers who cheerfully cracked and scrambled 90 dozen eggs!.” The Legion Post members want to help the homeless because, unfortunately, so many turn out to be veterans, according to Post Commander Richard Lane.

Elizabeth Haugen learned about the Christmas Breakfast event through American Legion Post #137 and decided to join their efforts to raise money and support the event. An avid quilter, she donated two quilts to be raffled off to raise money to purchase event supplies.

Christmas Breakfast in the Park founder Cynthia Saben, with volunteer Elizabeth Haugen and veteran David McGuffin, for whom the quilt was given. The quilt, named The Quilt of Valor, was created and donated by Haugen's friend, quilter Lorraine Happy.
Christmas Breakfast in the Park founder Cynthia Saben, with volunteer Elizabeth Haugen and veteran David McGuffin, for whom the quilt was given. The quilt, named The Quilt of Valor, was created and donated by Haugen’s friend, quilter Lorraine Happy.

“The raffle was such a success it raised $750. A friend of mine who is also a quilter, Lorraine Happy, donated ‘The Quilt of Valor’ which she wanted me to present as a gift to a veteran attending the breakfast,” Haugen said. “I met veteran David McGuffin there, who talked to me at length about his military service. He was a very special person, and I gave him Lorraine’s patriotic quilt. He was so moved and said he had never received anything like that in his life.”

A major supporter from day one was Anthony “Doc Tony” Crothers, the Jacksonville chiropractor who financially contributes and volunteers to help local non-profits. Along with his contributions to help the homeless, Crothers is known for his passion to save animals and support local animal rescue groups.

“Doc Tony, his assistant Paula Michelle Cloud and their staff worked tirelessly both years,” Saben said. “They provided dog food and toiletry bags filled with personal care items, socks, reusable water bottles, and approximately 500 tee shirts for the event.”

Saben’s longtime friend from both Murray Hill and San Jose, Billie Jean Lentes, is not the least surprised at the success of CBITP. Lentes is known as a go-to “Uber Lady”, always ready to transport animals to vet appointments. She lent her transport skills to pick up donations, personally stored event items and loaned tables for the breakfast.

“Cynthia is so passionate about helping others and helping animals, you’ve just got to support her. Whatever she asks me to do, I know it’s for a worthy cause,” Lentes said. “Community outreach is vitally important. The government requires too much red tape and takes too long to act. Local residents see a need and respond much faster and more effectively. Christmas Breakfast in the Park is a perfect example of what the community can accomplish by working together.”

Volunteers helped in countless ways, and Saben wished she could name and thank every adult, youth, organization and business who participated. Pastor Russell Kopp of Highland Freedom Baptist Church drove dinners to community residents who could not come to the park. Food and coffee tents were staffed by repeat volunteers, who kept pouring hot coffee, cocoa and handed out 500 water and juice bottles. At the care tent, volunteers helped guests choose a coat, jacket or clothes, a toiletry bag, small fleece blanket, nylon backpacks, gently worn work boots or ladies purses filled with feminine products, ChapStick, razors, deodorant, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, small combs, soap, or shampoo.

“One gentleman we met both years named Jessie, brought his two dogs, Midnight and Tinkerbell in the cart we were able to give him last year. It was in rough shape, so PitStop Pit Bull Rescue Transport donated a new upgraded cart for his beloved dogs,” Saben said.

Saben, with Kymberly Traylor and Jeannette Castro, all volunteer for PitStop, which is a major founding supporter of CBITP. They secured dog and cat food and supplies from Pet Supermarket at Jacksonville Beach and Earth Pets in Mandarin. Dog leashes and collars were among the most popular donated pet gifts, appropriately imprinted with “Unleash Kindness.”

Many more animal rescue advocates volunteered, including Connie Cannaday of The London Sanctuary Hound Rescue. Erik Stordahl of The Old Dog House was a major matching funds event donor.

Several caring dentists and their staffs donated adult and youth toothbrushes, toothpaste and other items: Riverside Dental, Dr. Howard Fetner, Crovatto & Edward’s Family Dentistry, Normandy Dentistry, and Eagle Harbor Dental.

Fuccillo Nissan of Clearwater donated a $500 gift card. Heather Deane at Color Fusion Custom Printing and Apparel, donated flyers and care bags. Winn Dixie gave a substantial discount on oversized boxes of biscuits. One W.E. Cherry Elementary teacher who loves animals, Rebekah Harp, and her students created approximately 500 Christmas cards to distribute.

Saben plans to complete the 501 (c) 3 Tax-Exempt Status Application process so that Christmas Breakfast in the Park can become a Florida non-profit charity in 2020. She is hard at work on CBITP 2020, with the goal of locating the event closer to the library downtown on Main Street. Saben would like to provide guest seating with donated tables and chairs to better serve more guests, more comfortably. Interested volunteers, donors, or any business that would like to become a corporate sponsor, can go to Christmas Breakfast in the Park’s Facebook page or contact Saben at

By Julie Kerns Garmendia
Resident Community News

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