BROOKSVILLE — Monte Patterson will tell you that the need seems to grow more each year as the holidays approach.
Hernando County's neediest families, who struggle to provide everyday necessities for their children, find themselves simply unable to fulfill even a single Christmas gift wish for their children.
That situation gave birth two years ago to what Patterson and other members of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church call the Matthew Project. Since its inception, the partnership among local congregations and the Hernando-based nonprofit homeless advocacy group Operation HeartFELT (Feeding Empty Little Tummies) has collected donations of new clothing, toys and small gifts for hundreds of the community's neediest families.
However, Patterson fears that this year's collection effort may wind up falling short before the Dec. 16 donation deadline. Not only are there more requests this year; some in his church's traditional support network — area businesses and other churches — say they are financially strapped, too, and may not be able to provide as much help as before.
"We're in a bind this year," Patterson said. "Right now, we have more than 184 requests, and I'm not sure we have the resources to answer them. I'm certain we're going to get more in the coming weeks."
Patterson said that being a man of faith commands him to believe in miracles. In fact, the first year that he was appointed to head up the Matthew Project, he faced a similar situation after receiving more than three dozen last-minute requests from Operation HeartFELT's school outreach initiative, which provides food for homeless elementary and middle-school children on weekends and holidays.
"We were lucky in that we got some generous offers from people in the community who believed in what we were doing," Patterson said.
Operation HeartFELT founder Pattie Stepbach praises the efforts of Patterson and participants from his church, as well as Spring Lake United Methodist Church, for making the dreams of so many children come true.
"These are kids who are going through something that is no fault of their own," she said. "Christmas brings them the hope and dreams that every child should have."
Patterson remains hopeful that despite the still-jittery economy, members of the community will once again come through for those less fortunate. In fact, the idea of the Matthew Project is biblical, he said.
"It means that whatever we do for the least of us we do for the Lord," Patterson said. "I think that people, our society still believes strongly in that."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]