ZEPHYRHILLS — Mary Ann Bertram, the mother hen of Feed My Flock, dotes on everyone like family. She and her dedicated team of volunteers gather several times a week at Zephyr Park to dish out generous portions of home-cooked meals: chicken, ribs, scalloped potatoes, fresh salads, dessert.
Some of the hungry people come from the nearby woods where they live. Others are in homeless shelters. They're off and on drugs, in and out of jobs and shelters, but no one asks questions there. It's about having a proper meal, being treated with dignity, being part of a family.
When Bertram, 68, began the program four years ago, it was once a month, then twice a month, then weekly. Now they go to the park's pavilion four times a week, Monday through Thursday, beginning at 4 p.m., though many show up an hour early.
"We can't quite make it the other days yet," she said. They stay until everyone is fed. Sometimes people come late.
They never seem to run out of food, no matter how many people show up — sometimes more than 100. One Thanksgiving, a family of four came to eat — mother, father and two children. Afterward, Bertram and the volunteers realized there was an extra turkey left that hadn't been eaten, so they packed it up and sent it home with the family.
"It's like watching a miracle. You think you've seen it all and then something else happens," she said.
Bertram says a blessing before they start the meal, but there's no sermon, no preaching.
"If you don't know what I believe by the way I act than I'm not doing it right," she said of her Christian faith.
They also bring meals to nearly 80 families struggling with some kind of hardship: a husband too sick to work, a family low on money. "If there's 10 people in the house, we feed them all," she said.
Bertram unabashedly recruits volunteers, such as Sam Bala, a retired east Pasco surgeon who does humanitarian work throughout the community and in other countries.
"This should never happen in the United States," Bala said of the people in America who are out of work and hungry.
He took a break from serving food from behind a buffet-style table. His head glistened with sweat as the temperature pushed 100 degrees. He looked at the strangers in need.
"It could be me," said Bala, 68.
Gladys Slowik, 89, sat at a picnic table with a plate full of chicken and salad. She walks a half-mile each way to the park, then carries a box of food with her to take to a neighbor who is disabled.
"I get my exercise and have my lunch," she said. "I enjoy it, rain or shine. And I enjoy doing that for her."
Debbie Yankin serves as one of the main volunteers, picking up donated food and cooking all the meals at Bertram's house. She proudly tells how she seasons the food and makes it delicious. She also brings food to the growing number of shut-ins.
"It's in my heart," said Yankin, 54. "God told me to do it."
"It's a blessing," she added. "I get chills … if people are hungry I'm going to feed them."
Dan Cutler is out of work and lives in a nearby shelter. He comes for the meals and helps set up. He said he does it "for God, and to help other people."
Pat Sawyer, Bertram's 88-year-old mother, also serves as a volunteer. "We have open doors, you can come and eat," she said. No one is turned away, anyone who gets near the pavilion gets a shout out from a volunteer to come have some food, a cold drink.
People donate all sorts of things to make the meals happen. Someone brings eggs. Publix gives bread and pastries. His Storehouse Outreach ministry donates meats. People drop off things like 50-pound bags of rice, vegetables, clothing and toys.
Bertram used to work as a nurse at Tampa General Hospital — until she had four strokes and developed tumors in her stomach. She had to stop working.
Then her family suffered a tragedy: Her great-granddaughter, who was a drug baby, died soon after her fifth birthday.
"She was the most awesome child," Bertram said, holding back tears.
Bertram felt defeated, but wanted to do something to honor her great-granddaughter.
That's when she started Feed My Flock.
"We've been doing it ever since and we're the most blessed you ever know," she said.
"If something bad happens something good always comes from it."
Now she's trying to reach even more people. Some can afford food, but they're alone, and too proud to come to the park for a meal. Her son bought her a house, and she turned one of the bedrooms into an arts and crafts room. She's starting a new program where anyone can come to her home and do a craft project in the morning — and enjoy a hot meal.
"You don't have the right to take anyone's dignity," she said.
The group has more than 12 volunteers now. One woman crochets hats for babies and children. They glow with satisfaction as they look at the tables full of people enjoying dinner. Some come up and hug Bertram before they leave. Others trickle in. Someone drops off more bags of bread. The food trays aren't empty yet.
"I can't explain it to you, but it just keeps coming and coming," Bertram said. "About the time you think you're down and out, someone shows up with something else.
"It just falls right in place, just like it's supposed to."
"Faith in Motion" is a regular feature about an individual or group doing something inspiring in the course of a spiritual journey. Story ideas are welcome, via e-mail. Send them to Mindy.Rubenstein@yahoo.com.