TAMPA — Dressed casually in jeans, a blue sweater vest and a colorful checkered shirt, Morris Hintzman quietly strolled the aisles of the giant tent that is Metropolitan Ministries' makeshift holiday grocery store on the northwest edge of downtown.
Hintzman, 74, nodded to volunteers busily stacking canned goods and fresh produce on shelves made of plastic egg crates. He smiled at the families in need as they collected free Thanksgiving meals donated by local individuals and businesses.
The buzz around the big tent Tuesday morning was all about wide receiver Cecil Shorts of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who joined celebrities from across the Tampa Bay area volunteering here each holiday season.
But the biggest star in this charity universe was Hintzman, former chief executive of Metropolitan Ministries and current president of the Metropolitan Ministries Foundation — the fundraising arm of the not-for-profit group that cares for the homeless and those at risk.
"This is because of him," said Tim Marks, the current CEO. "He started this."
An estimated 18,000 families with economic hardships from throughout Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties are expected to receive Thanksgiving and Christmas meals from Metropolitan Ministries this year.
That takes the efforts of 10,000 volunteers and countless donations.
So it's the community, Hintzman insisted, that makes this all possible. He just happened to be there, he said, when it all began.
That was back in 1982, he recalled — his first year as president of Metropolitan Ministries.
"We only had two wood-framed houses on Florida Avenue then. We had about 12 families living with us and people from around the city were dropping off food for them for the holidays, but it was far more than we needed."
So Hintzman put out the call: If you cannot afford a proper holiday meal for your family, he had food to give away.
"There were a handful of volunteers and people started coming by. From there, it just took off."
When the holiday drive outgrew Metropolitan Ministries' campus on Florida Avenue, it moved to a nearby warehouse.
In 1995, operations moved to a tent — the first one 100 by 100 feet. This year's is nearly four times as large at at a new location: 905 N Governor St.
"This site alone will feed 15,000 families during both holidays, 7,000 during Thanksgiving," Marks said.
Metropolitan Ministries operates smaller sites in Pinellas and Pasco counties.
They all shut down Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, then will reopen 12 days before Christmas. Toys and other gifts for children will be added.
The tent stands as it does to ensure families maintain their dignity, Marks said.
"If we wanted to serve a lot of people fast, we could pull up a semi and give out the food in boxes," he said. "This provides a more personal experience."
Among those picking out a Thanksgiving meal for her family on Monday was Mara Ruiz, a 38-year-old mother of two.
It was her third year receiving the help from Metropolitan Ministries, but for the first time she has a job and the future holds hope. She doesn't want to have to return another year.
"If not for this, we don't have Thanksgiving," Ruiz said in Spanish. "This is good."
Leaning against a wall near the children's play area, Hintzman scanned the busy scene.
"I am a dreamer," he said. "This is everything and more I ever dreamed it would be."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3320. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.