HUDSON — Carolyn Riggins gets up at 5 a.m. and watches the news before she goes to work every day. On Wednesday, she saw a report on Lakeview Baptist, a simple, white church that burned to the ground Tuesday night, likely due to an electrical malfunction. Riggins saw that the small congregation of 40 feeds nearly 200 people each week in a program called Project Hope. Rooms of food and clothes, intended for the needy, had burned in the fire.
Riggins, who lives in Tampa, is a manager for Feeding America Tampa Bay, a nonprofit food bank that serves 10 counties. She wanted to help, but couldn't get in touch with the pastor. She sent a staffer from Tampa to Hudson, who tracked down the Rev. Harry "Bucky" Buckwalter. At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Riggins got a call.
Project Hope was Thursday — the next day. Within four hours, Feeding America staffers had filled 480 bags full of groceries — estimating 240 people, two bags to a person. Each bag was filled with milk, bread, produce, cereal, peanut butter, jelly.
Buckwalter was told to relax, Feeding America would take care of Project Hope this week.
On Thursday they served 180 people.
"They've been a blessing," said Sue Yeager, 49, a church member and Project Hope volunteer. Even as they saw their sanctuary reduced to rubble, parishioners had vowed Wednesday to keep Project Hope going.
"I didn't know how we were going to do it," Yeager said. "It's a miracle this happened."
It was one of dozens of acts of kindness shown to the church. Some sent checks for thousands. Other gave what they could in the form of dollar bills or cans of food. The Church of God in Homosassa plans to donate its 35 padded pews and oak pulpit. Another church paid for a temporary tent to house Project Hope and the 10:30 a.m. Sunday services until a new building is built. People offered their labor to rebuild — carpentry, electricity, painting. People brought clothes and shoes — enough for two tables full — for people to take Thursday.
"It really helps a lot," said Christa Dunn, 35, of Hudson, who got food and clothes for her children. She comes when she has to — and appreciates it.
"They are going to come back stronger," she said of the church rebounding from its loss.
The kindness shown to his church has been overwhelming, said Buckwalter, 63. He doesn't know how much money has been donated yet. He has dozens of e-mails to respond to. His phone rings every few minutes.
When asked if this support has renewed his faith in humanity, he smiled.
"I never lost it," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.