Santa Claus wasn’t the only one rounding up gifts on Christmas Eve for several Plant City families.
Ali Sobh, owner of the Hungry Howie’s Pizza and buffet at 208 N. Alexander St., put on the iconic red hat and took almost a dozen kids and their families on a Walmart shopping spree on Christmas Eve.
Sobh has helped families put food on the table for Thanksgiving in the past, but doing something like this for Christmas was a new endeavor. He issued a call-out for people to nominate Plant City families for the shopping trip — specifically ones who could benefit most from a helping hand at that time of year — and said the response was bigger than he thought it would be. Approximately 20 families reached out to him, he said, including some from as far away as Louisville, Kentucky with family members in Hillsborough County. Most of the selected families came from the nominations Sobh received, but he personally reached out to the family of Levi Delemo to invite them on the trip after reading about Delemo’s fight against cancer.
The goals for this year were to keep it local for Plant City and to shop for 10 kids, but Sobh said they went over the mark for the latter.
“It was more than 10 because one of the kids that nominated a family, he acts like the father figure because they don’t have a dad,” Sobh said. He’s 15. I didn’t realize it was him requesting his own family.”
As soon as the group got to Walmart, Sobh and the families wasted no time exploring the store. For the kids, it was all about getting whatever they wanted. Everything from coloring books to video game consoles was fair game, and that included a “ton of stuff” from Disney’s Frozen movies. For the families as a whole, Sobh also made sure to get them clothes and other essential items they could use every day.
“My mom gave me a lecture, even at 24 years old,” he said.
The shopping trip cost Sobh nearly $2,000. Though he went in with a budget, the desire to make sure everyone left with big smiles on their faces and everything they wanted was greater.
“Most families were trying to be frugal with what they picked,” he said. “I had a budget in mind but when you’re with these kids and they’re talking to you, that goes out the window.”
Though the specifics aren’t set in stone yet, Sobh has already said he plans to be the not-so-Secret Santa for families again this December.
“I would do it again every year,” Sobh said. “It was exactly everything I thought it was gonna be.”