Ontario Brown and her six children didn't celebrate Thanksgiving last year. They had just moved and didn't have the means to afford a holiday dinner, she said. "We didn't do nothing," she said Monday from the doorstep of her Rainbow Village home. Through a partnership between the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Calvary Episcopal Church, Brown and her kids will be feasting on a full turkey dinner this year. "I'm very grateful," said Brown, 35. "Somebody gave our name (to the Sheriff's Office) and I'm still shocked."
Brown was one of 54 families in the Ridgecrest and Highpoint neighborhoods and the French Villas public housing complex, that received free holiday meals Monday. They were delivered by Sheriff's Office community policing unit deputies, who talked to public housing managers and scoured the communities they serve to find those most in need.
Calvary parishioners, the Indian Rocks Beach Rotary Club and several local businesses donated about $3,000 to pay for the dinners, which were sold from the Publix at Indian Rocks Shopping Center at a discounted rate. Each dinner included a turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole and dessert.
Sheriff's Deputy Mike Gattarello said it was good to know that needy families in the neighborhood he covers would have a holiday meal this year. And the community outreach initiative helps to build trust between citizens and deputies, he said.
Twenty of the meals were dropped off at Greater Ridgecrest Area Youth Development Initiative in Rainbow Village.
The nonprofit social services organization has seen a dramatic increase in the number of families seeking help to pay electric bills and buy groceries, said executive director Michelle Wilson.
"We offer monthly utility assistance and before we even open the doors, there's a line waiting," Wilson said. "Sometimes we can't even serve everyone."
Wilson said the Thanksgiving meals nourished not just bodies, but souls as well.
"It lifts their spirits tremendously and once again it shows there's so much to be thankful for. It's the whole meaning of Thanksgiving," she said.
There was one more surprise in store for Brown, who cares for a son with a mental disability and a daughter with asthma: The meals were prepared in advance and just needed to be reheated.
"That's even better," she said.
Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.