TAMPA — Giving up was never an option for Melane Rojas. She always had too much at stake.
When her father killed her mother 23 years ago, she had to care for her two younger siblings.
When her boyfriend left her pregnant, she still decided to become a mother. And when her daughter, Yuri, was born premature and diagnosed with autism, Rojas had to attend to the infant's needs.
Now 32, Rojas lives at the Metropolitan Ministries shelter with her 3-year-old. She volunteers and is looking for a job. And she's just the kind of person Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik wants to help.
"Many, many people are living under difficult conditions right now," Vinik said. "We want to help by making what little difference we can."
Metropolitan Ministries president Tim Marks said he asked Rojas and Vinik to speak at a fundraising breakfast Tuesday because Rojas represents those in need and Vinik personifies giving.
"We think he's a game changer," Marks said. "We haven't heard a lot of hopeful messages. But when you hear what (Vinik) says and see what he does, how can you not feel good about Tampa Bay?"
Vinik jump-started the team's Community Hero program, giving a nonprofit group $50,000 at each of 41 home games in the 2011-12 season. That's $2,050,000 in just one season, and only a fraction of the $10 million Vinik and wife, Penny, have pledged to local charities.
It's not just money. Tampa Bay Lightning employees have pledged to volunteer 100 hours each over the course of the year.
The best way to encourage others to give back, Vinik said, is to lead by example.
The 140 people who attended the breakfast did their part, too.
Clad in business suits, ties, pencil skirts and high heels, dozens of local professionals lined up outside Metropolitan Ministries early Tuesday holding dolls, Hot Wheels, Disney princesses and superheroes.
Call them Santa's helpers.
The toys will be given to more than 25,000 children throughout the Tampa Bay area this holiday season, Marks said.
"Seeing everyone here makes me wonder why I'm the one up there speaking," Vinik said of those attending the fundraiser, co-sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times. "There are so many people doing amazing things in this community."
Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.