With the holidays quickly approaching, the unemployment rates in the Tampa Bay area at double digits, and families struggling to provide a Thanksgiving meal or Christmas presents, Metropolitan Ministries has undertaken a much-needed expansion of services.
The effort has been dubbed "Compassion in Action" and consists of a Holiday Center in Pinellas Park as part of a partnership with Taking It to the Street Ministries. This will be the first Holiday Center outside Tampa. Organizers say the goal is to feed more than 2,000 families for Thanksgiving and again for Christmas.
Last year Metropolitan Ministries, a multifaith organization focused on assisting the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless, fed 26,000 families during the holidays in Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. This year the charity expects that number to increase by about 23 percent, including many families that are seeking aid for the first time.
"It's not the generational poverty people that we're used to seeing in years past, it's the working poor," said Jay Molina, director of residential and outreach services. "It's the people that (in years past) were donating to us."
Taking It to the Street Ministries, founded by Pastor Brian Pierce and his wife, Paula, is a nonprofit food pantry, addiction recovery center and disaster relief organization that has been operating in Pinellas Park for 11 years.
Pierce started the organization to help others after spending 25 years as a drug addict and career criminal. He and a group of volunteers have been distributing food for Metropolitan Ministries at 16 locations around the county for the past eight years. They were chosen to run the Compassion in Action site because of their centralized location and extensive networking with other faith-based organizations.
The Holiday Center, behind the organization's main building, consists of two large tents where donations are being sorted. During the weeks before Thanksgiving and Christmas, the tents will serve as a distribution center, where people in need will be able to select food for holiday meals and gifts for their children.
Pierce is quick to note that the effort will fail without the help of the surrounding communities and local businesses.
"This is a call to action. We really need the community to get involved," Pierce said. "We give away over 1 million pounds of food from this facility each year, and nobody knows about us, so we're struggling for support."
Pierce estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 families will have registered to receive aid by Thanksgiving. That means they will need to collect a minimum of 5,000 turkeys to cover both of the holidays, as well as canned and dry goods and about 10,000 Christmas gifts.
Once distribution begins, they will also need about 200 volunteers a day.
Metropolitan Ministries is supplying the tents and helping with logistics, but the food and gift collection is being left up to Taking It to the Street Ministries.
If the Pinellas collection site falls short of donation goals, Metropolitan Ministries will attempt to help, but the hard times may affect the ability to do so. The nonprofit is running a $250,000 shortfall in this year's budget, community relations manager Ana Maria Mendez said.
All of the families that register to receive aid are screened to verify their need and to prevent duplication of services. All donations collected at the Pinellas Park location will be distributed to Pinellas County residents.
Taking It to the Street Ministries will help organize food drives and arrange for pickup of donations, Pierce said. The group is looking for businesses and civic organizations willing to supply volunteers during the distribution days.