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Daystar to expand its gift of hope

On a typical morning outside the Daystar Hope Center on U.S. 19, it's not unusual to find a dozen people lined up before the center opens at 9.

Some are there to buy donated furniture or clothes from Daystar's thrift shop. But most are there because they need short-term financial assistance.

Some are retirees on fixed incomes who cannot afford to buy prescription drugs. Many are working poor who have had an unexpected expense, such as a hospital bill for a sick child or a costly car repair. Or they do not have enough money at the end of the month to pay their rent or electricity bill.

They turn to Daystar for help.

"At least half of the people who come here are working people who fall through the cracks," center supervisor Dorothy McLeod said.

At a time of cutbacks in federal, state and county social services, more residents seem to be falling through the cracks, increasing demand for Daystar's services. To help meet those needs, Daystar sells more clothes and other donated items, which requires additional space for storage and parking.

That's why Daystar intends to construct a bigger building this year just south of its location at 9155 Commercial Way, north of Weeki Wachee.

Daystar Hope Center, formed in 1990 as an offshoot of the Catholic Daystar Life centers, is run entirely by volunteers. It is a non-profit, ecumenical organization supported by nine denominations and 17 churches. It is not affiliated with Daystar Brooksville Center on Hope Hill Road.

Its new building, to be built on a 17-acre parcel Daystar acquired this year, will be 10,500 square feet, or 3,500 square feet larger than the existing building.

Consisting mainly of warehouse space, the new building will include a food pantry, a thrift shop, a furniture room, offices and a flea market. It will have 150 parking spaces. Daystar's current location has space for only a half-dozen vehicles.

"One of our biggest problems is parking," said director Frank Bierwiler, who also is a sergeant with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office. "We're using county right of way for parking, and it's getting to be kind of a hazard."

Organizers had hoped to build a larger facility but didn't have enough money. The proposed facility, which will cost about $200,000, is expected to open by Jan. 1.

"We want to build a bigger facility that we desperately need," said McLeod, one of 85 volunteers at Daystar. "We get an awful lot of items that at the present time we're having to store off our property. We need this space in which to store (the clothing and other items) so that more income will be coming in to satisfy the needs of the less fortunate."

Daystar, which serves 100 to 150 residents a month, has seen a growing demand for assistance, especially from those having trouble paying electricity and drug prescription bills. That problem is likely to increase as cutbacks take effect in government programs for the poor, Bierwiler said.

"We're looking to the future, and we have an opportunity to expand, and we think this is the right time to do it," he said. "We're very confident that the Lord is going to continue to bless us."

Daystar's volunteers interview all applicants and grant financial assistance based on need and individual circumstances. Some who receive help are asked to volunteer at the center.

Many are young people who moved to Florida to escape cold Northern winters but were unprepared for life here.

"They come down here completely unprepared for what they are going to find," said McLeod, a 67-year-old Detroit native who worked as a clerk for Chrysler Corp. "They buy a three-bedroom house, or sign a lease, and look for a job. They find a service-sector job. They can't afford to pay $600 a month plus utilities and food when they have three children."

Daystar also provides affordable housing to poor residents. Since 1991, the group has paid for the construction of 20 double-wide manufactured homes in a 15-acre subdivision near Centerwood Avenue in Spring Hill.

Village of Hope residents, retirees as well as young families, do not have to provide first- and last-month rent or pay a security deposit. Rent is $250 a month.

In the next few months, Daystar will seek county approval to add 15 to 18 homes to Village of Hope, for which there is a long waiting list.

"The biggest need for clients is affordable housing," Bierwiler said.