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Wimauma mission grows painfully thin

WIMAUMA — When her number was called, Rosa Villatoro pushed a stroller and grabbed her daughter's hand. She nudged through a crowd of people to a window in the back of the Good Samaritan Mission, where she was handed a bag of pinto beans, tortillas and potatoes.

"Right now we don't have any work," she said. "It's three months now with no work."

Here at the mission, she can at least find food and used clothing.

But that could change. The organization that has offered a lifeline to hundreds of families every week for 24 years says it's close to shutting down, stalled in the worst economic crisis of its history.

Private donations from retirees, churches and residents from Pinellas County to Pennsylvania have dried up, Pastor William Cruz says.

Since November, some checks stopped coming. Other donors on fixed incomes or with struggling businesses wrote to apologize for reduced gifts.

• • •

In response, the mission has spent all of its reserves, liquidized two investment funds worth $19,000, changed several positions from full time to part time, and cut salaries of its 23 staffers, including Cruz.

The next step: possibly eliminate low-cost day care for 50 children or the advocacy center, which offers job referrals and domestic violence counseling.

"This is the worst" crisis, Cruz said Tuesday as families queued up outside in the food and clothes lines. "It has touched so many people that have been unable to give us a hand."

The mission has weathered bare pantries before. But this one is different, said daughter Laura Cruz, who also works at the mission and whose pay was cut.

In the past, someone would arrive with a check or a truck full of goods to save the day. But this time is different, she said.

"If it wasn't for Mr. Bill who brought potatoes, we wouldn't have anything," she said.

• • •

The drop in donations coincides with a spike in food prices and utility bills. It hits at a time when laborers can't find work at construction sites or farm fields.

Griselda Torres and her husband lost construction jobs, the 26-year-old mother said.

"We come every Tuesday," she said. "This is a big help."

The mission normally serves 200 to 300 families a week, but that number climbed to 700 in January and settled at around 400 recently.

Cash donations around the holidays and in January usually cover an ongoing deficit of a few thousand dollars throughout the rest of the year, Pastor Cruz said.

But those extra donations never materialized.

In January, the mission spent $10,000 more than it brought in. February was worse: The mission was short $13,000.

Its overall debt is now almost twice that.

Cruz fears that he will have to turn down a donation of $50,000 for a building fund designated for a new 9,000-square-foot facility that would double the size of the mission.

The question he faces: How can he start a drive to match the donation for a building if he doesn't have the food and programs to fill it?

"My thoughts are that we're going to have to shrink and shrink and shrink," he said.

"When there's more need and need and need," his daughter continued.

They will hope for the best, the pastor said.

"God has never forsaken us," he said, "and we have never been abandoned."

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at amrhein@sptimes.com or 661-2441.

>>Fast Facts

Want to help?

Good Samaritan Mission can be reached at

(813) 634-7136. Its

address is 14920 Balm-Wimauma Road.

Wimauma mission grows painfully thin 03/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 7:54am]

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