ZEPHYRHILLS — The 35-year-old oven was so worn, baking pans had to be rotated every 20 minutes to keep food from burning. A steam table had to be propped up with pipe. And whenever one of the freezers broke down, volunteers scrambled to transfer hamburger to another one before it could thaw.
Such was life in the kitchen of the small white clapboard building that houses East Pasco Meals on Wheels, where every weekday morning at 6 a.m. a cook comes to prepare hot lunches for 85 elderly shut-ins.
Thanks to $40,000 donated by staffers of Florida Medical Clinic and its nonprofit foundation, the charity has a newly remodeled kitchen.
"I feel like it's a dream," said Cindy Beson, director of the shoestring operation powered mainly by people whose only payment is the smiles on the faces of those who receive the hot lunches they deliver five days a week.
Efforts to raise money began in earnest last year when financial support for the agency was getting harder to come by.
For the past 30-plus years, East Pasco Meals on Wheels had earned about half of its income from recycling newspapers and aluminum cans. The rest comes from donations and meal payments; clients are asked to donate about $4 a meal to help cover costs, though needy ones receive reduced rates.
The nonprofit used to make almost $4,000 on a truckload of newsprint bound for the recycler. But the economy took its toll and the same truckload of newsprint fetched $700.
Beson was desperate. She filled out every grant application she could. A friend came by one day and saw all the packets. The friend, who works at Florida Medical Clinic, picked one up and took it to her boss.
The clinic staff took it from there. Beson compared it to an old-fashioned barn raising.
They put on a bowling fundraiser in July that raised about $20,000. The clinic's nonprofit foundation matched it.
The result: state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen appliances, including a walk-in cooler and freezer that was installed this past fall.
Beson estimates that just updating those two things saves the agency $75 to $100 a month on electricity bills.
"People see the value in what we do, and why it's so important, said Beson, who is one of only four employees. "These are elderly shut-ins and people who can't cook for themselves."
Beson said the volunteers are so dedicated, they often do more than the meal deliveries.
She recently learned that one volunteer was bringing a 96-year-old woman a McDonald's cheeseburger each Sunday.
When gas prices shot up to $4 a gallon a couple of years ago, not one volunteer walked away or asked for a mileage reimbursement.
Their mind-set regarding clients are "these are my people," Beson said.
A deeply religious woman who has crosses on the wall near her desk, Beson called the kitchen an answer to a 2-year-old prayer and says it's proof God is "still in the miraclemaking business."
The 54-year-old cites herself as another example.
The survivor of 18 operations, including open-heart surgery, she said she's happy to able to make a difference.
Whenever anyone credits her with helping rescue the agency, she says "I'm just an instrument," and points upward.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.