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Life is good Pumpkin Festival in Lithia helps fund better days, new lives

Every time someone at FishHawk Ranch's Life is good Pumpkin Festival tosses a disc Saturday, they will help a disadvantaged family in Tampa toss away their problems.

Every time one of the expected 12,000 revelers carves a pumpkin, they will help a struggling mom or dad carve out a new life.

Every time someone in the festival's Backyard Games competition runs through the obstacle course, they will help a group of deserving kids overcome the obstacles in their own lives.

There may not be two more disparate communities than FishHawk and Sulphur Springs, separated by 27 miles and a world of lifestyle differences, but on Saturday they will be connected by goodwill.

Part of the proceeds from the festival will go toward funding self-help family programs such as HomeAid Tampa Bay, which has designated Metropolitan Ministries' Uplift U program as its beneficiary.

Barbara Altman embodies the ministries' definition of uplift. A native of Poland, the single mother of five entered the program with no job and no place to live earlier this year. She and her husband split up after he lost his job, and she had been forced to find a new home for the third time in three years.

"I don't even want to think about where I would be without it," Altman said of the program. "It's hard to say I could have got through without their help. I don't think I could have done this by myself."

Altman did more than people might imagine, however, because Uplift U is not a hand out, it's a hand up. It focuses on fueling self-sufficiency among its "students" and the university tailors programs to an individual's needs. Classes range from employment counseling to financial management skills.

Certainly, shelter and employment proved to be primary concerns for Altman. The program also addressed the needs of her children, including a 10-year-old daughter who needed to be academically challenged and an 8-year-old son with autism and attention-deficit disorder.

Not only did Altman land a job on MacDill Air Force Base with the program's help, but also her daughter now attends prestigious Academy Prep. Her son received counseling and other services from the Center for Autism and Related Diseases at the University of South Florida.

Eventually, Altman earned her U.S. citizenship and graduated from Uplift U as the valedictorian. The ministries lifted her up and in some ways created a new person.

"When she first came to us she was so quiet and reserved," said Ana Maria Mendez, the ministries' communication relations manager. "Now she's blossomed and really come out of her shell. She's a true success story."

Altman now lives with her family at Sanctuary, the ministries' 12-unit townhome complex in Sulfur Springs that has opened to homeless families. Altman must continue on the path of self-sufficiency — families at the Sanctuary pay rent and utilities based on their income — and from all indications, she is well on her way.

"I love the Sanctuary, but this is not mine," Altman said. "I want a place where I can stand on my own. I want my own house, and I want my kids to have their own place. I just want to make one more move, and that's it."

When the throngs come out for food, face painting and festive music, they will celebrate the joy of a family-friendly event. Barbara Altman will celebrate all the people who have been a friend to her family.

Life is good.

That's all I'm saying.

IF YOU GO

Life is good Pumpkin Festival

When: Saturday, 3-10 p.m.

Where: FishHawk Ranch's Park Square Town Center, 16144 Churchview Drive, Lithia

Features: Food, live music, pumpkin carving, face painting, and the celebrity Backyard Games

Life is good Pumpkin Festival in Lithia helps fund better days, new lives 10/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:42pm]
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