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Citrus was going to waste; people were going hungry

Published Oct. 6, 2005

While needy people sometimes go hungry, many oranges and grapefruit on backyard trees rot before they're harvested.

John Smith, Cindy Tatham and some other Phi Theta Kappa honor society students at the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg Junior College are doing something to fix that.

With the cooperation of homeowners, these academic achievers are picking fruit for the needy in their spare time.

What is manual labor for others is weekend fun for the students. They have invigorated a charitable effort that had been spotty in previous years.

"I love doing this," said Nicole Syms, 21, of Tarpon Springs as she tossed grapefruit from a tree in a Palm Harbor back yard last Saturday. She's a physical therapy major who was president of the student government on the Tarpon Springs campus last year.

"This is the least we can do to help our community," said Johnnie Yeun of Palm Harbor as she worked another grapefruit tree. Mrs. Yeun, 50, has three grown children and is studying nursing.

Phi Theta Kappa is the junior college equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa, and students need a grade-point average of at least 3.25 out of 4.0 to join PTK.

The fruit-picking students have teamed up with a Palm Harbor food pantry called FEAST and the Big Orange citrus store in Clearwater to get citrus to needy people in North Pinellas.

Oranges that can be eaten go directly to FEAST (Food Emergency and Services Team), which redistributes some to other charities, including Religious Community Services and Goodwill Industries in Clearwater.

Grapefruit and juice oranges go to Big Orange, which squeezes the fruit, bottles the juice and makes it available, at no charge, to FEAST and other food pantries and charities.

"This is the biggest program FEAST has ever had for citrus," said Gloria Bruckart, FEAST's chief buyer and coordinator of the program. "But we still wish more people would donate citrus and more groups would pick it. The need is great."

Alan Plunkett, the chapter's faculty adviser, said the volunteer work is enabling the students to fulfill a Phi Theta Kappa requirement of at least 10 hours of community service each semester.

Plunkett said most of the volunteer service by Phi Theta Kappa members is tutoring children at the Citizen's Alliance for Progress in Tarpon Springs.

The picking project got under way after Mrs. Tatham, 36, a Palm Harbor mother of two and a pharmacy major, saw a recent picture in the Times showing a volunteer picking fruit for FEAST.

She and Smith, 35, a child psychology major from Tarpon Springs, organized the project. About half of the 80 members have taken part since the fruit picking began in late January.

With Mrs. Bruckart lining up donors, the chapter has sent out teams most Saturdays to pick citrus.

A team led by Smith picked grapefruit from several trees at the home of Norman and Candy Lunning in Palm Harbor last Saturday. Other members of his team are Mrs. Yuen; Richard Latarewicz, 24, a mass communications major from New Port Richey; and Marty Miller, 23, a psychology major from Oldsmar.

On the same day, a team led by Mrs. Tatham picked grapefruit in the yard of Mark and Liz Moretti and other members of the Courts Homeowners Association in Palm Harbor, as well as in a nearby power line right of way.

Other members of her team are Ms. Syms; Jennifer Kreeb, 19, a business major from Tarpon Springs; and Vicki Williams, 34, an education major from Tarpon Springs, who is a mother of two.

To donate

Anyone in North Pinellas who wants to donate their citrus crop to FEAST and other food pantries or charities should call Gloria Bruckart of FEAST at 784-3195.