SPRING HILL — Last year for Thanksgiving, Pastor John Grossi's church fed 25 families, which is a substantial amount; 25 turkeys and sides, 25 holidays made better, but Grossi wasn't satisfied. People are hungry, people are hurting, he told his 100-member congregation at Springs of Life Family Church, which he and his wife founded seven years ago in their living room.
He and his parishioners started a food ministry nine months ago with leftover bread donated from the Publix across the street from the church on County Line Road, just west of the Suncoast Parkway. As word spread — free bread, 10 a.m. Fridays — more and more people showed up. It became bread and peanut butter and jelly. Then the church started buying food from Feeding America Tampa Bay, a food bank in Tampa, with change collected each Sunday in a bucket passed around the pews. It became a few hundred people. Then 500, some waiting in line hours beforehand. The church began with a pickup to get the food from Tampa. Then a pickup with a trailer. Then a donated 18-foot truck. Then the truck and a few trailers. Next is a semi.
He didn't know, week to week, if there would be enough money or donations to feed everyone, but Grossi, 52, had faith.
And added another challenge:
He wanted to give Thanksgiving dinner to 1,000 people.
Nearly 2,000 signed up.
That's 500 families.
Five hundred turkeys.
Five hundred 20-plus-pound boxes of food — canned corn and beans and cranberry relish, stuffing, cakes, pies, bread, soda, juice. Fresh potatoes and yams.
"Are you crazy?" Grossi said church volunteers told him.
But they did it.
The pantry opened at 8 a.m. Tuesday. There were a dozen people waiting in the dark when Grossi arrived at 5:30 a.m. By 3 p.m., about 1,400 people from Pasco and Hernando counties had been through the line, manned by 50 volunteers. Families kept trickling in throughout the afternoon. The church loaded up vans of food to deliver to home-bound residents.
"It just shows what can be done when people work together and everyone does their part," Grossi said.
He said his church isn't rich. His members are hurting, too. But they donated what they could, as did Publix and other businesses. Publix sold them turkeys at cost and kept them in their freezers.
"This is our heart," said Kim Joseph, 36, a youth leader at the church. "These are people trying to raise their families and they just need some help."
Catrina Handstad, a 37-year-old mother of two from Brooksville, didn't know how she and her family were going to have Thanksgiving dinner until her mother told her about Springs of Life. It's been a rough year. Handstad has five brothers and sisters and all but one — the youngest, who is 20 and pregnant and working two jobs at McDonald's and the Dollar Tree — have been laid off from work, she said. Handstad has worked at Walgreens for more than 20 years, but makes little more than minimum wage. Her mother got laid off from her job at an auto parts store after working there for 19 years. Handstad said she and her sister have been trying to help everyone out. But all their money goes for bills. How can you feed a dozen people Thanksgiving dinner for a few bucks?
"I'm so thankful for every one of these people who do this," she said, as she buckled her 3-year-old daughter into her car seat Tuesday, preparing to head off to Publix to get her free turkey.
Her birthday is Friday and all she wants is for her family to have a nice, happy holiday. Their Thanksgiving dinner will be late, though. After months of prayers, her mother landed a job a few weeks ago as a cashier at Walmart. She's working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving.
"We're not complaining," Handstad said. "She was praying for any job. There are so many people out there looking and fighting for each opening."
Grossi is already thinking about Christmas, about all the families who need help, though he has no finalized plans yet.
And next Thanksgiving?
"I want to feed 5,000," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.