Advertisement

Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

HEARTS ARE HEAVY, BUT TASTE OF '09 GOES ON

As they leave the locker room to start a game, every Notre Dame football player touches a sign above the exit that says "Play Like A Champion Today."

Sue Hrabusa doesn't play for the Irish, and the sign in the Nativity Catholic Church social hall doesn't contain such a declaration.

It simply reads: Don't Put Boxes Of Food On The Floor. -Pat.

When Hrabusa arrives each week to work at the social hall as a volunteer for the Nativity Food Pantry and Food Bank, she touches the sign, an emotional reminder of the pantry's executive director Pat LeJeune.

"I kind of do the Notre Dame thing every Thursday morning when I get in there to unload the truck," Hrabusa said. "I won't let them take it down."

LeJeune passed away in January at the age of 68 after a brief battle with cancer. Yet as volunteers and supporters prepare for the Sept. 26 Taste of 2009, the pantry's annual fundraiser, LeJeune's inspiring memory remains at the forefront of their efforts.

LeJeune's husband, Tom, still has many of his wife's possessions in his home. Volunteer Tessie Falkenbach keeps a message the former lead administrator left on her voicemail. Tessie's husband, Carl, who runs the food bank's expansive warehouse in Dover, says not a day goes by that he doesn't wish the longtime executive director were still there.

It's not incorrect to refer to Pat LeJeune as the executive director because the church never named a replacement. An army of volunteers sustains the effort even as donations decline and demand rises. The pantry typically served 100 to 135 families every week, but now the range runs from 135 to 190. Last week, they fed 191 families through donations from Nativity and nearly 50 other churches and organizations affiliated with the food bank.

The outreach grows more impressive when you consider Mary Wallace, who handled many of the food bank's administrative duties, died just three days before LeJeune.

A group of volunteers accustomed to dealing with heavy boxes now deals with heavy hearts.

Still, they soldier on. Nativity's 4 p.m. Mass on Saturday will be dedicated to the two tireless volunteers, and pantry volunteers are asking parishioners to bring one canned good or box of food to all services this Sunday and continue to do so on the third Sunday of each month.

LeJeune and Wallace would be thrilled with the donations, but not so much with the attention. Wallace, a no-nonsense retired Air Force colonel, often helped make sure families who sought assistance qualified. She was firm but fair and had a special soft spot for all the volunteers.

LeJeune, who was posthumously honored by the county's Department of Aging earlier this year, seldom sought the spotlight and spent most of her time working behind the scenes. She stepped into the limelight only to urge civic groups and residents to help the less fortunate, and she never turned away a chance to increase donations.

Once, a driver of an overturned truck called to explain that the boxes of frozen chicken that spilled on the road would be thrown away. LeJeune rushed to the scene on Interstate 4, and knowing her, she got there before they thawed.

"The poor with us are our responsibility, and if we didn't have people to take care of, we would be less for that," LeJeune told me in a 2003 interview.

The bottom line is that the volunteers who have remained will be happy that the Taste of Nativity continues, but sad that LeJeune won't be there. As the person who served as the event's emcee for five consecutive years, I'll feel the same.

That's all I'm saying.

IF YOU GO

Taste of 2009

Saturday, Sept. 26, 5-8 p.m.

Nativity Catholic Church Social Hall, 705 E Brandon Blvd.

Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door; Children 4 to 8, $5. For more information, call (813) 293-2825 or (813) 684-2587.

Participating restaurants: American Pie Pizza Co., Arby's, Beef 'O' Brady's, Big Belly Burgers, Brocato's Sandwich Shop, Chick-fil-A Valrico, Clubhouse Sports Bar, GFS Marketplace, Holy Cow Kettle Korn, Hungry Howie's Pizza, Mango's at Embassy Suites, Mimi's Cafe, O'Brien's Irish Pub, Planet Smoothie, Publix, Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, Ruby Tuesday, Stingray's Grill, Yuengling Brewery, Zaxby's.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement