OLDSMAR — Bonnie Dunn sees every person who passes through Oldsmar Cares, the volunteer-run nonprofit that provides clothes as well as rental, utility and food assistance to those in need.
Over the years, the profile of the needy has changed.
"When we first started doing this," Dunn said, "they were down-and-out people — people that don't have jobs, people that have had sicknesses, the elderly who are on fixed incomes. Now we have people coming here that have never had to do this before, people from all walks of life."
In its early days, Oldsmar Cares handed groceries to about 20 people a month. In July, that number swelled to an all-time high: 133.
Most of the clients come from Oldsmar while others come from Safety Harbor. Once in a while, they trickle over from nearby Hillsborough County. (Rent and utility assistance is limited to individuals and families in the 34677 ZIP code.)
"People that used to donate," chairman Mike McKnight said, "are now people coming for help."
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Dunn doesn't need to read or see news reports to tell her about the economy. She listens to the most private details of people's lives, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday.
Stories about pay cuts, slashed hours, layoffs and exhausted unemployment benefits spill out of the mouths of people, some of whom she doesn't even know.
"It's more than giving the food," she said. "It's listening to people. They need to talk about things."
Like the grandmother who suddenly found herself saddled with five grandchildren to raise.
Or the man who came in on Thursday and said his monthly Social Security benefits had been slashed from $1,100 to $400.
Or the woman who was appreciative just to get two plastic bags of groceries — the maximum allotment allowed per month.
Toward the end of 2009, Dunn started hearing more stories like those. Volunteers began to notice an upswing in demand.
People who thought they'd never have to request outside assistance started to file into the Community United Methodist Church of Oldsmar, the host site for Oldsmar Cares.
"Not an executive, per se, but someone at my level," said McKnight, who is a program manager at the Nielsen Co. "Middle managers."
In October, and again in November, 89 people sought groceries. By December, the monthly tally had grown to 95.
"We could not keep up," McKnight said.
"It caught us off guard," Dunn said.
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Friday, after volunteer Donald Worley sorted through the nonprofit's inventory, he gave Dunn a grocery list's worth of items the pantry lacked.
"We need tuna," Worley told her. "All the tuna is gone. If they can, get us some more of those canned hams. We're out of corn. We don't have any mashed potatoes. And cake mixes. We need canned fruit. We don't have any canned fruit. And we need peanut butter and we're out of jelly."
Oldsmar Cares is recovering after its busiest summer ever. More people passed through the food pantry in June (101), July (133) and August (118) than at any time in the nonprofit's 13-year history.
Though Oldsmar Cares never had to turn anyone away, there were times it had to curb distribution from two plastic bags to one, Dunn said.
Until recently, it was totally supported by the church. The U.S. Postal Service, Cub Scouts, schools and civic groups have assisted as well.
After demand rose, organizers formed a separate 501(c)(3) in order to reach out beyond the church for support.
Oldsmar Cares' next major food drives aren't until November.
Looking around the pantry, McKnight said he may have to "push up" a couple of them.
Reach Rodney Thrash at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.