Tarpon Springs’ Shepherd Center bounces back after Irma’s toll

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TARPON SPRINGS — Over the years, the Shepherd Center has seen its ups and downs, and this year was no exception.

Although now it is the holiday season and workers at the Shepherd Center are focused on collecting food and gifts for the less fortunate, back in September, workers were focused on Hurricane Irma’s wrath and how to keep the nonprofit organization afloat.

On Sept. 10, the area surrounding the Shepherd Center at 304 S Pinellas Ave. had been evacuated for to Irma, but as soon as the storm moved through, a few of the organization’s workers, including Ada Torres-Del Gais, the executive director, rushed back. She quickly recognized the thrift store, the main source of revenue for the Shepherd Center, would need to remain closed for several days because of storm damage and loss of electricity. There was also a strong possibility the organization would lose 40,000 pounds of food.

"We did have to close (for 12 days), but, we also saw some blessings too. I look at us as being successful during that time because we got food to those who needed it,’’ said Torres-Del Gais, 65. "I always say, God is always here in this place, and I believe it. It’s one day at a time."

On that first day after the storm, Torres-Del Gais began making calls to let community partners know of the situation.

"I remember that it seemed like the community, like AHEPA (Amercan Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), and others that had electricity began cooking immediately. St. Timothy’s (Lutheran Church) was able to help us too,’’ she said. "I would say approximately 5,000 to 7,000 people were fed from that food.’’

It did not happen overnight, but within the next few weeks the organization began refilling the shelves in large part through a partnership with Feeding America, said Torres-Del Gais.

"Through Feeding America we are assigned help from certain stores,’’ she said. "So once these stores, Walmart, Target and Winn-Dixie for example, were able to restock, they gave us food.’’

"God is in this place,’’ she said.

The Shepherd Center first opened in 1974, in a small building on Court Street. The non-denominational community group served no more than a handful of needy neighbors each week. Forty years later, the center has grown by leaps and bounds. With 19 employees and more than 1,000 volunteers, the Shepherd Center’s work stretches from Tarpon Springs to Dunedin and Holiday.

In its current headquarters, a 30,000-square-foot building on S Pinellas Avenue, workers are able to see about 100 individuals visit a day to pick up food. In the main area, a former car showroom, the staff operates a thrift shop, and next door, there is office space for a computer and job search training area, a youth art program and medical outreach, including a mental health counseling.

Beverley Billiris, president of the board of directors, attributes the organization’s survival to a combination of its thrift store revenue, grants, private donors and community partners. She admits finding that successful combination has not been easy, citing about $400,000 in annual operational costs.

According to Billiris, a former mayor of Tarpon Springs, two years ago the board spent months fundraising to come up with the $325,000 down payment to help mortgage the $1.2-million for the building that they first began renting in 2014.

They signed the mortgage papers in 2016, she said.

"Of course it is not easy for any nonprofit to own a building and have a mortgage but we knew this location meets our needs currently and for the future,’’ she said. "It makes us stronger.’’

For its part, the thrift shop, renowned in the area for its furniture and upscale china and art, brings in between $30,000 and $40,000 each month, according to Billiris. However about five years ago, even the thrift store was a challenge when its manager came under fire for stealing about $4,000.

"When that happened I was not president, but I did have to deal with the issue,’’ Billiris said. "The employee was tried and convicted and made restititution. Since then we have more checks and balances in place.’’

"Both 2016 and 2017 have seen strength for us,’’ she said.

For Thanksgiving, with help from partners like the Salvation Army, the Shepherd Center helped hand out more than 2,500 turkeys. But even before the recipients settled down for their meal, staff started working to ensure those in need would also enjoy a Christmas dinner.

"The community will come together,’’ said Fred Howard, a longtime volunteer who helps with marketing for the organization. "Last week I was talking to a group of ministers, and I told them we needed help with Christmas meals. No sooner was that said that we got a call from Pastor Curt Snare at St. Timothy’s Lutheran Church. He let us know the church had $1,500 set aside to help.’’

"That’s how we find it works here,’’ he said. "We work ahead. We work together.’’

Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.

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