Sue and Jim Campbell took a drive over to the New Port Richey Volkswagen dealership one night last week. Even in the dim light, the object of their attention looked pretty rough.
The 21-foot-long bus didn't fare much better the next morning. Its red paint had faded into more of a rusty orange. The sun had bleached the black bumpers gray.
A closer inspection of the 1997 Spartan, most recently used to haul around kids at a Clearwater karate school, revealed a much different condition. The 22 seats were immaculate. And when Jim Campbell turned the key to fire up the engine, it purred like a kitten.
Even had it coughed, even if it hadn't floated so effortlessly down the highway as the Campbells rode it home, they would have seen it as something much greater than just a vehicle. In their eyes, the big red bus is a symbol of what's right with this community. And it just may deliver some down-and-out folks to independence.
The Campbells are widely known for helping the homeless. Jim is pastor at the interdenominational Prayer House. He also serves as president of the Homeless Coalition of Pasco County. Together they run the ROPE Center in Hudson, offering shelter and resources to two dozen men and women in separate dorms. In return, they require straight behavior, chores, and for clients to aggressively search for a job.
Transportation is always the biggest obstacle. Residents are limited to applying for jobs within walking or bicycling distance.
A few months ago, Group 1 Automotive took over the Volkswagen dealership on U.S. 19 and had a grand opening party. Sue Campbell, a senior account representative at Cox Media Group, handled some of the promotion and got to talking to the general manager, Ruben Santiago. As Sue Campbell is quick to point out, "Nobody is around me for long without learning about the ROPE Center.''
About the same time, the owner of the red bus traded it for a Jetta. Bill Roberts, Santiago's boss who was down from Mobile, Ala., suggested it might be good to donate the bus to a charity rather than put it on the lot or sell it at an auction, where it likely would fetch about $8,000. Santiago called the Campbells.
"It's an answer to our prayers,'' Sue said as she sat aboard the bus, parked in the side yard at their house near the Timber Oaks subdivision.
They considered painting the bus but decided instead to have it wrapped in vinyl that will advertise the ROPE Center. They are seeking bids for insurance and considering logical routes to help their clients reach job opportunities throughout west Pasco. "You'll be seeing this bus on the road soon,'' the Rev. Campbell promised.
Last year at this time, the 65-year-old pastor applied for some government surplus blankets, figuring he'd get a few hundred. Then, at a huge warehouse donated by the county, he watched as truck after truck delivered 40,000 blankets from a woolen mill in Rhode Island. Social service agencies and ministries from throughout this region showed up for the free blankets. A man from New Port Richey read about the effort and asked Campbell what he could do for the ROPE Center, which is why it now has a new kitchen. The man insisted on anonymity.
The blankets continue to arrive. Campbell just accepted 60,000 more and to date has passed out 102,000. Around Christmas, Doug Gray, the only remaining original member of the Marshall Tucker Band, sent trucks to Hudson to pick up several thousand blankets for victims of Hurricane Sandy.
As with everything they do, the Campbells depend on contributions. "God provides. He wants to know where your heart's at,'' the Rev. Campbell said. "Lack of imagination is the only obstacle.''