SUN CITY CENTER — Walk through the door of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church on any Wednesday around lunch time, and you're likely to be greeted with a warm smile, a pleasant welcome and maybe even a hug.
Head back to the social hall and the delicious aroma of a nutritious hot lunch served by friendly and caring volunteers will envelope your senses.
This weekly gathering occurs because Metropolitan Ministries chooses to extend its outreach far beyond its headquarters in inner-city Tampa.
Metropolitan Ministries contacted St. Andrew Rev. Mark Salmon to ask if his church would like to become one of the meal sites it has established throughout Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk and Pinellas counties.
MetMin maintains 29 such sites that serve up 2,500 hot meals a day, 75,000 hot meals each month, and last year served a total of 1,169,826 meals including food boxes they distributed during Thanksgiving and Christmas to families in need.
And while it may surprise some that the agency is delivering meals to Sun City Center, a MetMin official said the need is significant among seniors with 60 percent of attendees being over the age of 65.
"We learned through some of our church partners and donors that hunger is a problem for some seniors in that area," Karl Celestine, senior director of outreach and prevention services for MetMin said. "Most have simply outlived their assets."
The organization also recognized a need for hungry families with children who are coming from Riverview, Ruskin and Wimauma. Those who come to St. Andrew get more than a meal.
"It helps these people receive a nutritious meal, but also emotional support, prayer, and a social outlet," Celestine said. "Seniors often feel very lonely."
Volunteers from all over Sun City Center come to St. Andrew for this weekly opportunity to serve. There are about 10 volunteers who drive to the main campus of MetMin on Florida Avenue in Tampa each week to pick up the prepared food. Approximately 20 other volunteers from the community plate and serve the meals to the 20 to 40 lunch guests.
Sally McLeish, chairperson of the mission committee at St. Andrew, leads the team of volunteers and helps keep the operation running smoothly.
"People come here for what I believe are three reasons," McLeish said. "First, your tummy tells you you're hungry; you don't have enough food in your cupboard. Second, because you're lonely. We have so many people here in Sun City who are widows and widowers, and they tend to stay in their homes. So they come here just to chat. Some have formed friendships by coming here each week."
"And third, for spiritual needs. One of MetMin's rules is that if someone asks you about your faith, you are welcome to share that with them but we are not here to preach. We have many denominations that give assistance, and we all try to offer help where there is a true need."
Metropolitan Ministries has become a massive nonprofit organization that serves the Tampa Bay area in many ways. Not only are they providing food for thousands of needy people, they give clothing to the homeless or those with very low incomes. They teach life skills through adult education classes, provide special shelter and developmental services for homeless families with children under the age of 8, after-school care, free income tax prep and assistance in finding employment.
In a word, it provides hope.
"There are three components to our mission statement in caring for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless," Celestine said. "One, to alleviate suffering (food and shelter); two, to promote dignity (education and job training); and three, to instill self-sufficiency (employed, stable housing, support system, community connection)."
The food insecure in Sun City Center clearly benefit from Metropolitan Ministries, extending its reach, but the volunteers also find a benefit to helping.
"What a blessing for us that we are able to do this," McLeish said. "I think we are getting more out of it than the people who come here. It's just such a fun way to serve."
Contact Kathy Straub at [email protected]