Jim Mihalic was one of about a dozen volunteers cooking for what appeared to be a small army. He was frying up a gigantic pan of bacon. He doesn't know how to cook. Laid off from his materials management job two months ago, he just wanted to help out. "Idle hands are the devil's work," said Mihalic, of Belleair Bluffs. "So I've been looking for ways to keep my hands busy." The bacon eventually became part of chicken cacciatore. The food became dinner for about 160 people at the homeless shelter Pinellas Hope.
The cooks, mostly members of Anona Methodist Church in Largo, met there late last month and spent almost three hours preparing the food.
There was a lot of food. Almost 70 pounds of chicken and 25 cans of tomatoes went into the cacciatore. The dish also required three large cans of broth and a large mixing bowl filled with diced onions. Six industrial-size cans of green beans went into a huge pot.
There were eight large trays of garlic bread and several others filled with cookies made of cake mix and oatmeal — the ingredients go further that way.
"There's a little stress at times to get everything to come together, but generally most of us have a good time," said Evelyn Brown, of Indian Rocks Beach. "You can talk a little, then cook a little."
As things slowed down, some of the volunteers took a break and chatted. Bonnie Parr, who has organized 15 dinners for Pinellas Hope since it began in December 2007, floated around the kitchen to make sure the food remained on schedule: "Okay, can we put the rice back on?"
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Bonnie and Jim Parr, members of the Anona church, learned about Pinellas Hope through their friend, Jan Stumpf. Her husband, Dennis, started talking with a newspaper hawker one day. Dennis found out the man was homeless and stayed at the new shelter in Pinellas Park.
The couples visited the shelter and quickly decided they wanted to help somehow. Bonnie began organizing donation drives — mostly clothes and bedding — from residents in her Americana Cove neighborhood in St. Petersburg. If the shelter could use what she collected, she donated it.
At first, the dinners only had to feed a few people. The Parrs, who work part-time putting on pizza and omelet parties, handled most of the cooking. The Stumpfs and a few other close friends helped out. They've moved the operation to Anona for the past several dinners because they have so many people to cook for.
Now Bonnie Parr organizes dozens of volunteers: Anona church members, those in Jan Stumpf's small church service in Caribbean Isles and other friends.
"It started as a very small project, and it just keeps snowballing," she said.
Jan Stumpf hasn't missed helping with a dinner. This time, she was collecting money at a garage sale to help pay for the food. She volunteers her time so that some people at the shelter can have a chance to re-enter society.
"You look around and you see some real smiling faces and some real sad ones, and they all have a story to tell," she said. "It just gives us an opportunity to give back to people who — we could be in their position."
Besides the dinners and donations, the Parrs also collect day-old bagels for breakfast. They've bought one resident a bike to get to work and scoured the area for size 13 shoes for another resident.
"If they've got a genuine story and it looks like they're headed in a better direction, we'll give them some more support," said Jim Parr, a retired mechanic. "I've been close in my life to where I was almost under the bridge. I know what it's like to be pretty hungry."
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Sheila Lopez relies on groups like the Parrs to feed the Pinellas Hope residents. As director of the shelter, she schedules a different group to come in each night.
"Pinellas Hope is about serving the homeless, but it's also about calling people to serve," said Lopez, who is also chief operating officer of Catholic Charities in St. Petersburg.
The shelter has 250 large orange tents and has a capacity of 270 people. About 30 sheds have been built on the property, and Lopez hopes to have another 80 built by January.
When people arrive at the shelter, they are given a few personal items. They must go to counseling and are prohibited from drinking or doing drugs. They must look for a job and also perform chores around the shelter if they aren't working.
At the July 27 dinner, volunteers served the residents at dozens of long folding tables under big white tents instead of having them go through a cafeteria-style line. They brought a band from the church and had karaoke afterward.
Eddie Davis, 45, said the meal was better than what he usually gets. Davis has been at the shelter for more than three months.
"I've been to a lot of shelters," he said. "This is the first time I've been to a shelter like Pinellas Hope. They do a lot for the people here."
At three garage sales before the dinner, Bonnie Parr and the other volunteers cleared $1,419. Her goal was $800. Now, she can sign up for two more dinners this month.
"I've got the interest, and we've got the money," she said.
Now they just have to make the food.