Anyone driving past the Clearwater Municipal Services Building at Pierce Street and Myrtle Avenue on a Monday evening will see a gathering of a lot of people and a whole lot of food. It's not a picnic. Or a rally. It's dinner — a home-cooked meal for 150 to 300 homeless people served up by volunteers from St. Jerome's Catholic Church in Largo. The line starts to form at the edge of the parking lot even before the food arrives at 5:30 p.m. As they get their plates, the people filter through the parking lot, some standing to eat and others finding places to sit on the grass or on the curbs.
For 10 years, St. Jerome's Feeding the Homeless Ministry has provided meals from beef stroganoff and shepherd's pie to baked ziti and chicken cacciatore.
Also delivered at each meal are 200-plus deviled eggs, huge bowls of stuffing, pastries, breads, sandwiches and a message: the homeless are not forgotten.
"These people do good work," said Terry Lee Hopkins of Clearwater, who has been homeless since July 2005. "I'm 55 and still alive, thanks to the grace of God and all these lovely people who come out and feed us."
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Preparations begin about 2 p.m. each Monday when 25 volunteers enter the parish center. Director Jack Coombes and co-director Gerry Sobien took over the ministry six years ago and run the kitchen with the precision of a restaurant.
Every volunteer has a job, which for some includes picking up donated breads and pastries. Amounts vary weekly, but Publix is the largest food contributor, followed by Panera Bread and Frida's Bakery.
Gareth Williams of Largo is the fry man.
On a recent Monday, he browned 40 pounds of beef for stroganoff.
"We're helping people in need," said Williams, 75. "Some weeks we feed 100, end of the month it may be 300."
Newly retired teacher Pat Jennings of Seminole explains the care that goes into meals.
"Made-from-scratch stuffing and deviled eggs go over big," said Jennings, 63. "They're soft. Easier to eat for people who may have missing teeth."
The aroma of sautéed onions and simmering broth fill the air while the kitchen hums with the sounds of chopping vegetables, clattering pans and people enjoying their work.
Nancy Coopman, 70, of Largo cubes bread. She has made stuffing every Monday for four years.
"What goes around comes around," Coopman said. "We help people, but have fun."
Dan Steeg, 73, of Largo chops huge onions and makes gravy.
"I've been doing this about two years," said Steeg, whose wife, Janet, 72, stays busy with 14 other women slathering bread with peanut butter and jelly.
They work atop gingham-checked tablecloths and transform 22 loaves of bread into bag lunches, a little something extra.
Barbara Shimkus, 71, of Largo, who has been part of the ministry for five years, individually wraps cookies to keep them from getting soggy, then places each with a sandwich.
"I was brought up to help people, regardless of their station in life," Shimkus said.
One of the ministry's first volunteers, Ann Tougas, 78, of Largo touts the program as more organized than in earlier days.
"It's grown immensely both in people who need food and volunteers," says Tougas, a retired nurse. "In the beginning, there were just six of us."
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Organization keeps the operation running smoothly, thanks in part to Sobien. She has kitchen duty Mondays, but every day gathers clothes, shoes and special items the homeless need.
On this day, she bought sneakers for a man she says desperately needed new shoes.
"We keep track of people," Sobien said. "I love when someone says Miss Gerry, I got an apartment."
She is proud to have "helped 12 people get off the street."
Janet Baker, 67, of Largo also fulfills a dual role: coordinating the PB& J sandwich-making and filling empty prescription bottles with shampoo, an inspiration she had after standing in the heat serving meals.
"I started just asking neighbors. Word spread. Now people drop prescription bottles off in the choir room," Baker said. "Barbara Shimkus and I cut coupons and buy shampoo. I store bottles in my garage and every Monday fill up two shoe boxes."
Matt Licht of Indian Rocks Beach helped animals and people for 26 years as a local veterinarian. He joined the homeless ministry two years ago.
"I wanted to help folks downtown and here at church," said Licht, 53. "Once I sold my business, I needed some other fulfillment in my life."
Besides volunteering in the community as a master gardener and 4H mentor, Carla Levesque has served the homeless since the ministry's inception. She has a distinct opinion about working with any person.
"See them as an equal, don't try to be better than someone else," said Levesque, 83, of Indian Rocks Beach. "You don't know what's happened in these people's lives. I'm happy to be a part of this ministry, because it gives people hope."
Alexander Jones, a 47-year-old homeless man in Clearwater, truly understands what a warm meal can mean.
"My job went down the drain," he said. "What they do (here) is really important. It does a lot of good, because a hungry man is a dangerous man."