NEW PORT RICHEY — This time last year, Gabriel Papadopoulos was appealing to Pasco County officials and charities after federal belt-tightening eliminated $83,000 from the county's nutrition program for the elderly.
With 200 seniors on the waiting list for free or discounted meals, the last thing the program director needed was a five-figure revenue loss.
In the end, charities stepped up and the county dipped into reserves to cover costs. Then in April, Papadopoulos got word of a $75,000 grant award under the Older Americans Act to bridge most of next year's budget gap.
With the immediate crisis averted, Papadopoulos and other program backers are worried nonetheless. What about future funding cuts? As Pasco's population turns grayer and the need for meals increases, what then?
Papadopoulos is aiming to tackle those questions with a newly created charitable foundation.
Formed a month ago after receiving 501(c)(3) tax status, the group — so new it doesn't have a name — will raise funds solely for Pasco's Elderly Nutrition Division.
The three Pasco residents who head the group — John Porreca, Karen King and Rich Hayes — said they had been considering the idea for more than a year but intensified their efforts after Congress enacted forced budget cuts that hit federal and local agencies.
"That was the impetus, to get the funding that was lost," said Porreca, 64, the owner of SouthEast Personnel Leasing in Holiday. "Now we want to get to the point where we can get everybody fed."
The 35-year-old nutrition program feeds 800 elderly people daily at their homes and at eight congregate dining centers around the county. Meals from G.A. Food Service Inc. in St. Petersburg are trucked to the dining centers, where volunteers package them for home delivery.
The waiting list for the free or discounted meals can fluctuate from less than 100 to more than 200 in a given month.
Papadopoulos said he's worried that those numbers will mostly trend upward as more baby boomers retire, noting that any financial setback — an illness or the sudden loss of a spouse — could land someone on the waiting list.
Forty-one percent of the program's participants live at or below the poverty level. About 60 percent are homebound, he said.
The foundation's short-term aim is to eliminate the waiting list.
"These are our grandparents and great-grandparents, our teachers, our coaches, those who served our country in the military, police and firefighters. They deserve our help for what they've given us," Hayes said.
For King, 64, the owner of Holiday-based Centron Security Systems, it made sense to launch the charity, considering that thousands are helped yearly by the program already, and others still go without food.
"It just breaks your heart," she said. "These people have worked their whole lives, and here they are in their senior years, and they're struggling to eat, and that's wrong."
The group has a lot of work ahead. It must choose a board of directors and then come up with a strategy to raise funds and receive them.
"What we can do as a grass roots group, for one, is to create awareness to help people understand that there are thousands of these people in our communities not eating in a reasonable way and getting sick," said Hayes, the owner of Digital Lightbridge, a marketing firm in Port Richey.
Among possible strategies are a social media blitz, walk-a-thons, gift-certificate sales and appealing to groups such as Rotary and Kiwanis.
"In the year 2014, to me, it seems hard to believe that people could be going without food and seeing them splitting meals," Hayes, 45, said. "It blows my mind. It shouldn't be that way. This is a country of abundance. I think we all have a responsibility to care for our neighbor. This is literally a way to care for our neighbor."
Contact Rich Shopes at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236. Follow @richshopes.