Bells are ringing, carols fill the air and the aromas of ham, apple pie spices and fresh pine needles waft through hallways. It's a joyful time, but not for everyone. Today's economic situation has left a vast number of folks without food, shelter or other daily necessities.
Feeding the hungry is a prime goal of bay area charities. The need is great during the holidays, but officials at three bay area agencies say help is needed all year. And all seek volunteers, money or other donations to serve the needy.
At the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, executive director Jane Egbert oversees a staff of several dozen and about 250 volunteers. They can be found packing and shelving food in the organization's food pantry, sorting through vegetables and donated baked goods, delivering groceries and serving dinners at the residence halls.
"Often these people have fallen through the cracks of other organizations," said Egbert, 67.
Holiday meals are provided by many churches and agencies, but this year Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries, one of the largest charities in the bay area, has spread its bounty across county lines. Its renowned Holiday Center, a huge tent where volunteers dole out complete meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas, has put down stakes in Plant City, Holiday and Pinellas Park.
Called "Taking It to the Streets" in Pinellas Park, Metropolitan Ministries is offering "boxes of hope" holiday meals from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday.
More people are finding themselves in need of shelter as well. Solutions are at hand, although funds are in short supply.
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic houses 35 men for short stays at its Beacon House and about 20 women for up to six months at the Women's Residence.
"We are seeing the changing face of homelessness," said Anna Mendez, community relations manager for Metropolitan Ministries. "We have more mature families with older children who are in this program for the first time."
The agency houses up to 120 adults and children in a transitional family facility.
"Now we have a five- or six-month waiting list for some 60 families in need," Mendez said.
The goal is to move families from transitional homes to one of 12 townhomes in the Tampa area or several four-plex homes in Tampa's Seminole Heights, both long-term affordable housing options.
One segment of the population is often overlooked: developmentally disabled adults who need a safe shelter in which to function, especially those on their own.
The Upper Pinellas Association of Retarded Citizens addresses that need.
"Many of their families have not been able to maintain contact or may no longer exist," said Sheldon Hershman, director of UPARC. "We are their family."
The Clearwater-based agency offers 22 group homes stretched between Largo and Tarpon Springs, each home occupied by residents at similar levels of disability. Staff members remain on the premises of some homes, and periodically visit more self-sufficient residents in other homes.
Hershman echoed the sentiment of other agency directors.
"Money is our greatest need," he said.
The majority of the funding for UPARC comes from the state agency serving people with disabilities, but state funds have been diminished.
Hershman said 17,000 developmentally disabled people statewide are awaiting services.
"The funding just isn't there," he said.
The organization hosts fundraisers and accepts gifts from corporations and individuals, including donations of household goods and kitchen items.
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic and Metropolitan Ministries also welcome money, food, household items and time.
"Our needs have grown in the current economic climate," said Egbert. "Donations of goods and money are greatly needed.''
There is good news. The spirit of volunteerism is alive and well in the bay area.
"We have about 12,000 volunteers in a year," said Mendez of Metropolitan Ministries, "and we need them all 365 days a year."
Egbert agreed. "We couldn't accomplish all we do without our volunteers," she said.
Local doctors and nurses are among those offering services to the Free Clinic Health Center, where some illnesses and conditions, such as diabetes, are treated. Certain medications also are provided.
For those in need and for those who want to help, it can start with a phone call.
Elaine Markowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.