The rain stopped as dinner hour approached at the Unitarian Universalist Church. The crowd of 50 waited outside of the chain link fence of the playground, gold tinsel weaved into the links above them. Jenna White, 4, rushed to the tables when volunteers ushered her and her mother, Gina White, to the potluck picnic, a weekly break from dinner at the YMCA. For Jenna, it was pizza and cake night.
Picnic on the Playground, hosted by the church, has served more than 28,000 meals at 260 picnics to the city's homeless and hungry population. May 2 marked five years of service. The effort began with members of Food Not Bombs and the Society of Friends providing meals and toiletries to the homeless in Williams Park. The groups were later forced to seek private property on which to offer meals when city ordinances prevented them from doing so in the park.
The church offered its playground as a picnic venue, close to Mirror Lake and accessible to the area's shelters and homeless residents. The church serves as the location, but volunteers from Celebrate Outreach, Food Not Bombs, Missio Dei Church, the Society of Friends, and local students all work to assist in the nondenominational effort.
"The central idea is to help feed those who are hungry," said Reginald Craig, picnic coordinator and head of the Homeless Ministry at Unitarian Universalist. "Your motivation is not the question of that, it's the action that counts."
Guests and volunteers held candles. Five-year volunteers, new volunteers and guests sang Happy Birthday and various hymns. To Craig, the dinners allow people to share stories.
With a picnic near Mirror Lake Drive, word of mouth spreads among friends about the tasty, variety-filled meal.
"The food is great," White said. "Swedish meatballs, salad, they have all kinds of options."
Geneva Nelson collects food from the St. Petersburg Free Clinic Food Bank, Suncoast Haven of Rest's food pantry, vendors from the Saturday Morning Market, and dishes prepared by volunteers. She gathers more food closer to the end of the month when more guests' disability checks run out. There were a couple of close calls, but the picnic has never turned anyone away for lack of food.
"There are people who have been coming the whole five years, coming to eat," Nelson said. "Now they've got a job, a place to stay and now they come here and volunteer."
Gregory "G.W." Rolle was homeless in Williams Park in 2007. Members of Food Not Bombs, a nonprofit organization that seeks to aid the homeless, discovered he was a talented cook. As Rolle prepared meals, he found job opportunities. He now prepares food as a volunteer at Unitarian Universalist, works for the Southern Legal Council and serves on the Homeless Leadership Board as a national advocate.
"It was a phenomenon where they got me out of the bushes to cook for people who came out of the bushes," Rolle said. "I thought that homeless people should help each other, by the homeless for the homeless. It's an empowering concept."
Those at the picnic find support beyond cake and pizza. Robert Smith, an environmental artist from Norwalk, Conn,, felt encouraged by volunteers to save money and obtain a license.
"It's the encouragement trying to do good for people who can't do quite so good," Smith said. "The power of suggestion, of course the will of God, helps along the way."