BRANDON — For Jasinda Vasquez, the holidays are about traditions: family get-togethers, special clothes and hearty meals.
But this year, the out-of-work Brandon mother is on her own for Thanksgiving — no dinner at her mom's house and no money for fancy outfits. And if it weren't for Metropolitan Ministries' new holiday outreach program in Brandon, there might not have been good food either.
"I would be lost," said Vasquez, 28. "It's hard to survive these days."
Metropolitan Ministries, a Tampa-based nonprofit that helps poor and homeless people, collaborated with local churches and social services agencies this year to expand its decades-old holiday assistance program to 2,500 Brandon families.
From now through the holiday season, volunteers will collect donations of food and toys at the white tent on the lawn of the First Baptist Church of Brandon, 216 N Parsons Ave.
And at three partner organizations, individuals and families in need can register to receive boxes of food and toys from the Holiday Center at the church in the days leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"We just wanted to be able to go where the families are," said Ana Mendez, director of community relations at Metropolitan Ministries.
Metropolitan Ministries is pooling its efforts with the Women's Resource Center, I Am HOPE Cafe, the Emergency Care Help Organization and several community churches.
Local sites make it easier to reach out to donors and recipients, who in the past had to commute to the ministries' well-known tent in the downtown Tampa location, Mendez said.
"It's great to see neighbors helping neighbors," she said.
In the white donation tent in Brandon, colorful crates fill with packages of Ramen noodles, pasta and canned beans. Inside the church, Sunday School rooms will be transformed into festively decorated, scented holiday shops with shelves of food and toys.
It's just a small snapshot of the holiday support that Metropolitan Ministries provides throughout the Tampa Bay area. With three other Holiday Centers, the organization will serve 5,000 in Pinellas Park, 1,200 in Pasco County and thousands more in downtown Tampa — about 30,000 in all.
That's a 10 percent increase since last year, Mendez said.
With the state's unemployment rate rising to 11.9 percent for September, many in Brandon are going from dual-income households to single- or no-income homes.
"You used to be able to tell who was a client and who was a donor," said Stacey Efaw, executive director of the Emergency Care and Help Organization.
"Now, you can't tell the difference anymore."
And during the holidays, Efaw said, the need triples.
"Being a parent, that's something you want to provide: presents for Christmas and a turkey at Thanksgiving," she said. "Even if they're embarrassed, it'll push a parent to ask for help."
So the community has risen to the challenge. Inspired by the cooperative charge, volunteers want to keep the donation tent open for longer hours, and three local churches will cross denominational lines to host Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in Brandon, separate from the Ministries' usual holiday spread in Tampa.
It's a big boost for people like Vasquez, whose 4-year-old son wishes for toy trucks this year. And for her unemployed friend Lori Walter, 41, who was recently evicted from her apartment.
As the two women left the donation tent on a recent morning, clutching brochures to give to friends also down on their luck, they repeated themselves at least three times over.
"Thank you," Vasquez said. "Thank you so much for this."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.