For eight years, vendors have gathered every Saturday from fall to spring to sell gourmet baked goods, fresh produce, plants and flowers, honey and handmade crafts in downtown St. Petersburg.
The grass roots effort, started by volunteers who wanted to create a sense of community, has evolved into a sprawling village, where visitors from near and far reap the bounty of the weekly harvest.
Now those villagers are rallying to support one of their own, who has fallen ill.
Organizers and vendors at the Saturday Morning Market are raising money to help Mohamed "Rudy" Elsayed get a much-needed kidney transplant.
Elsayed, owner of Rudy's Produce, has been a mainstay at the market from the beginning.
For the past few years, Elsayed has had worsening problems with diabetes. And for the past two seasons, his wife and children have run the produce stand without him.
Many visitors to the market may be more familiar with the family's pineapple song or fresh squeezed orange juice at the booth than the man himself.
Elsayed and his family are the only example of an entire family being involved in the market and actually working at the market, said market director Mark Johnson. "The kids have grown up working there and have become a part of the market fabric," he said.
Elsayed came to the United States at 18 "because it was the land of opportunity. He knew no one and has made quite a life for himself," said Johnson.
The Saturday Morning Market averages about 125 vendors per week, and many of them have donated items for the fundraiser, said market manager Gail Eggeman.
Elsayed, the father of five, has been on dialysis for a year and had to lose a lot of weight to become eligible for a transplant, she said.
"The vendors at the market have just been incredible," said Sandy Gonzalez, who until last year ran the Crepesville booth there. "Everybody has been spectacular. It's a nice community."
Gonzalez, who is one of several unofficial "aunties" to the Elsayed children, is an ad designer at the St. Petersburg Times.
Elsayed's status for a transplant was put on a 60-day hold in November by Tampa General Hospital to ensure he will be able to handle the expenses involved post-transplant, said Eggeman.
"He's in a situation where the hospital told him he needed to have $5,000 in an account to pay for the anti-rejection medicine" for six months.
Market organizers learned they could help Elsayed through the National Transplant Assistance Fund, which helps families with financial hardships arising from uninsured medical expenses after transplantation or catastrophic injury.
It acts as a pooled account so donors can get a deduction and patients can receive funds without jeopardizing their Medicaid status. The organization works with the transplant program at Tampa General.
"We immigrated from another country and don't have a lot of family here, so it's really great that so many people are trying to help us," said Elsayed's wife, Mona. "It's a great feeling,"
Some generous friends have offered to donate a kidney, but they can't be tested until the money is there, said Eggeman.
"We've put together a plan to do a fundraiser and we've asked the vendors to donate items for the baskets," she said. "They've been great. We have 12 baskets and will be selling raffle tickets for two weeks. On Dec. 18 we'll still sell tickets, but will start raffling off the baskets. The signs we've posted say: "Buy a ticket, save a life."
Ticket sales began Saturday. Raffle tickets will sell for $3 each, five for $10, and 10 for $20, she said.
"Our goal is to exceed the $5,000 to keep him safe and healthy," she said. "The next step is finding a kidney and we may have to raise more money. I don't know, but we'll see."
The deadline to raise the needed money is Jan. 15.
In addition to the Dec. 18 fundraiser, market vendors are planning a jazz brunch for Jan. 9 at First Unity Church.
Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at email@example.com or at (727) 893-8874.