PORT RICHEY — On the second Monday of the month, Joseph Scagliozzi lines up early for a box of food at The Volunteer Way warehouse on Congress Street. It’s a modest offering — a godsend of donated canned goods, peanut butter, rice, pasta, sweets, beverages and fresh vegetables.
"I can’t tell you how thankful I am this place is here. This helps me out a lot. Gets me by till the food stamps kick in on the 21st (each month)," Scagliozzi said with a broken smile, as volunteer Ray Michener, 74, handed him an apple pie.
Scagliozzi, 60, scrapes by on the $125 he earns each month from mowing lawns — less in the winter when the grass doesn’t grow as fast.
A hernia makes it difficult to for him to work, Scagliozzi said. With no health insurance, he’ll wait until he qualifies for Social Security and Medicare benefits before tending to that. For now, he exchanges small chores for a 12’ x 12’ room in a mobile home in the Moon Lake area and cooks meals using a microwave or electric frying pan.
"I make it by okay," he said with a shrug. "I’m good with my money."
Scaligozzi’s story is one of thousands — a drop in a never-ending bucket of need, according to Lester Cypher, 81, founder of the Volunteer Way, a non-profit, faith-based charity that distributes close to 7 million pounds of food to the poor each year.
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Ask Cypher about The Volunteer Way and he’ll tell you it started with a couple of miracles. How else could a self-proclaimed former slumlord from Long Island, N.Y, wind up feeding others while happily making due on $2,500 a month in social security benefits?
Cypher’s first miracle came with a pastor’s healing prayer at the Calvary Temple Church of God on Palmetto Road. After years of debilitating back pain resulting from falls Cypher sustained while working as an electric company lineman, he could suddenly move with ease. That got him thinking that God had a purpose for him.
Two years later, Cypher figured out what that purpose was. While being prepped for a procedure in a local hospital, his doctor told him to go home, because there was nothing wrong with his heart after all. Miracle number two, Cypher figured. Then his pastor, who stopped in to visit, asked if he would start a soup kitchen and food pantry.
And there it was.
Cypher started small, with the offering of a free meal on Saturday.
"The first week one person showed up," he said with a chuckle.
Within a few weeks he was serving 30 to 40. Within months, 300.
Today, The Volunteer Way now assists about 23,000 families and 70 food pantries annually, with help from partners such as Second Harvest, Feeding America Tampa Bay, Operation Blessing International, local supermarkets, restaurants and businesses. Some 300 meals are served daily at a satellite center and soup kitchen on Moon Lake Road that also provides laundry services, free haircuts, showers and a 12 step-program. Two refrigerated trucks serve as mobile pantries, making monthly deliveries to low-income elderly and their pets through the organization’s Brown Bag and Animeal programs, and also to food deserts in rural areas such as Lacoochee, Trilby and Zephyrhills.
"These are communities that don’t have supermarkets. These people might have food stamps, but they have to spend them at convenience stores because they have no transportation," said Martha O’Brien, The Volunteer Way’s assistant CEO. "Some of these families are sleeping in cars, motels or the house of a friend."
Many are working poor, O’Brien said. "They make minimum wage. It isn’t enough. It breaks my heart."
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The Volunteer Way’s main operation is out of a 15,000 square foot warehouse on Congress Street that was built with donations on over six acres of donated land. An adjacent hydroponic vegetable garden and fruit tree grove is tended by manager Jane Doe, with help from mentally-challenged adults and volunteers like Luchy Bravo, 72, who shows up daily.
"It’s a fabulous job," Doe said, noting a recent bumper crop of okra and eggplant. "We’re growing food for people who don’t buy fresh vegetables because they can’t afford them."
In April, The Volunteer Way celebrated 25 years of service in the local community. Cypher, who started the operation out of his garage, volunteers as CEO, and is supported by a board of directors, 15 staffers and about 250 volunteers.
He spends much of his time networking and writing grants, but also in the day-to-day operation, spryly moving throughout the campus.
"I work in the warehouse. I buff the floors. I clean the bathrooms from time to time. I thank God I get to be here every day," Cypher said.
Future plans include building a working cannery next to the warehouse so people can learn to preserve their own food. It will compliment the organization’s learning center that offers free English language classes, as well as instruction on how to write a resume and dress and interview for job.
The idea, Cypher said, "is not to have people showing up for a free box of food for the next 100 years, but to learn how to do for themselves."
But in the meantime, there’s more to be done.
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Mid-morning at The Volunteer Way warehouse had volunteers Casey Wyatt, 38, and Michael Latham, 27, assembling boxes of food while Christina Walker, 32 divided bulk rice into smaller bags. Pallets of food surrounded her, but Martha O’Brien was still fretting about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and whether there would be enough.
"Last year at this time, we met our goal for 1,000 turkeys. Right now we have one," she said, noting that 750 families registered for help. Organizations such as Metropolitan Ministries, located in Holiday, were feeling the strain as well — especially in the wake of Hurricane Irma.
"Thanksgiving is a day that reminds me that there is hope," O’Brien said. "But if you don’t have enough to feed your family, what hope do you have?"
It would be okay, Cypher told her.
‘Tis the season, after all, when the "do-gooders" step up, he said. "God always provides. It might be at the last minute, but we’ll be okay."
His concern is in the coming months, when the holiday spirit wanes and donations slide.
"There are times of the year we might have to send 50 families away," he said. "People eat just as much in January, February and the rest of the year as they do in November and December," he said, "We’re always looking to see if there’s an empty spot that no one’s covering. Once we do something to fill that need, we find there’s more to do. We probably need to do five times what we’re doing now. We need another refrigerator truck. We need more food. But we trust that it will come."
Contact Michele Miller at [email protected] Follow @MicheleMiller52.