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Brooksville restaurants serve dinners to needy through Love Your Neighbor program

When you're in Jeff Arndt's shoes, it's a blessing to wake up on Monday and just have to look for work — not food and work.

Arndt was one of about 250 unemployed or homeless residents who filled every available chair at Love Your Neighbor's weekly dinner on Sunday at American Legion Post 99 in Brooksville.

An unemployed construction worker, Arndt recently returned from Tennessee, where he and his pregnant wife lived in a tent while he tried and failed to find a steady job.

She and their newborn baby have moved in with relatives in Tampa. Arndt, 45, is sleeping on the floor of a friend's trailer with no heat or electricity.

He planned to hit the day labor depot the next morning, and wasn't hopeful. But at least he had a chicken-and-pasta dinner in his stomach, a bag of food to take with him and fresh clothes so he could change out of his dirty T-shirt.

"This helps a lot,'' Arndt said.

Love Your Neighbor, founded by John and Lisa Callea, owners of Rising Sun Cafe, has been going strong for 18 months now. To visit their weekly dinner is to see the depth of the need for this kind of service in Hernando County, where the unemployment rate is nearly 11 percent.

The diners include able-bodied men such as Arndt, older people, and whole families struggling to find enough money to pay bills and feed themselves.

Yet, the meals have neither the look nor feel of a breadline.

The volunteers, many of whom first came seeking help, deliver the plates of food and cups of lemonade to the diners to spare them the indignity of lining up. Bunches of flowers in Mason jars are on each table.

Longtime members of Love Your Neighbor and of churches from around the county pray and talk with anyone who feels the need. The meals are not just sustaining but appetizing, provided on a rotating basis by restaurants including Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread and, on Sunday, Rising Sun.

So that's what else you see at these dinners: a widespread willingness, even eagerness, to help out. At at one point, I had to elbow my way through a crowd of volunteers for the privilege of cutting a few dessert cakes.

Workers tend to return because they find it so rewarding, said Ronda Mullin, 57, of Crosspoint Church in Spring Hill. She pointed out that "there are needs in other parts of the county for programs like this.''

Impoverished people, she said, usually have trouble getting around. So, though I have no suggestions on how to improve this great service, it would be nice to see it duplicated by some other organization in, say, Spring Hill.

There are food pantries there, but a shortage of humanizing gatherings like the Love Your Neighbor dinners, said Barbara Wheeler, executive director of the Mid Florida Homeless Coalition.

It counted 148 homeless people in Hernando last year. That is likely a fraction of the current number because many homeless people, used to being mistreated, avoid census takers, and because the economy has forced many more people on the streets.

They are not just drunks and the mentally ill, as some people think, she said, but also ordinary people who can't pay their rent or mortgage. In other words, they really are our neighbors.

Brooksville restaurants serve dinners to needy through Love Your Neighbor program 02/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 6:40pm]
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