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Bad economy putting squeeze on charitable acts as need keeps growing

TAMPA — Shirley Gipson doesn't have the luxury to eat out.

"A can of beans and a slice of bread, and you've got a meal," Gipson said.

But on Thanksgiving, Gipson and her family were among more than 800 people who ate turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy at South Tampa's Donatello Restaurant.

For the past 23 years, Donatello owners Guido and Alessandra Tiozzo and their son Gino have served free Thanksgiving meals for at-risk and foster children. It's a tradition challenged by the worst economy since the Depression, which has reduced business by about 20 percent.

"Obviously, we're hurting more than previous years," Gino Tiozzo said. "But this dinner is the last thing we would cut because of the economy. More than ever, it's what Thanksgiving is all about."

More families than ever benefit from the restaurant's help. In its first year of giving away free meals, it served only 250 people, said Bobby Bowden, a former Tampa mayor's spokesman who coordinates the event for Donatello.

"About two years ago, we started seeing not just kids, but their families," Bowden said. "It's definitely worse than what we've seen."

Metropolitan Ministries planned to deliver 1.6 million pounds of food to about 29,000 families for the holiday. That's an increase of about 23 percent from last year, said Ana Mendez, a spokeswoman for the charity.

"We've really seen the changing face in the homeless," Mendez said. "People who had been donors and volunteers are on the receiving end this year."

Habitat for Humanity says the need for affordable housing is growing, but finding eligible candidates for the homes built by the nonprofit is more difficult. Candidates for the housing, who pay a lower mortgage, can't have too much debt, said Shurla Roland, the nonprofit's family services director.

"We're having trouble finding families who qualify," Roland said. "We find them; it's just harder."

Novlette Thompson became one of Habitat's newest homeowners. She celebrated Thanksgiving at her new house in East Tampa with her family on Thursday. A 51-year-old elderly caregiver who makes about $20,000 a year, Thompson and her 9-year-old son had been living with a client in northern Hillsborough. But she qualified for the house, which was built in October, and moved in last week.

"I'm hanging in there," Thompson said. "I'm so grateful for my new house. It's so beautiful."

Not everyone is as lucky.

Gipson, for example, had to move in with her mother this month after her apartment was foreclosed. Her landlord hadn't paid the mortgage.

She's 50 and gets $550 a month in disability pay. Along with her mom, Gipson lives with her daughter Lesley, who is 23, and her 2-year-old grandson, Avontae, who is deaf. Another daughter, Avontae's mother, was working a holiday shift at a Quality Inn and couldn't join the family for the meal.

Until this past week, Gipson said she had never heard of Donatello. The rest of the year, the Dale Mabry Highway restaurant serves pricey entrees like $60 grilled porterhouse steaks and $70 racks of lamb for regulars like former U.S. Ambassador Mel Sembler and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Ronde Barber.

"I couldn't afford to come to a restaurant and eat like this," Gipson said. "Especially not now."

Bad economy putting squeeze on charitable acts as need keeps growing 11/26/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 10:04am]
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