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  1. Hernando

People Helping People is about to help even more

SPRING HILL — They were "just a bunch of volunteers who wanted to feed the hungry," recalls Ron VanMetre. It was the first gathering 10 years ago of a group of people who had issued a community-wide invitation to a free Sunday dinner.

The hungry came. And they had other needs, as well.

Braced by do-good determination and can-do attitude, those who organized as People Helping People are poised to address those needs out of a new Community Resource Center at 1396 Kass Circle.

The freshly remodeled and well-appointed 4,600-square-foot facility, accomplished at a cost of $735,600, will welcome the public for tours at a grand opening from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 7,

"This is really a turning point," said VanMetre, who was executive director of the interfaith organization since its inception, "It's quite an exciting time."

"To me, it is unbelievable our organization has come this far in 10 years," added board president Doug Brainard, who was in charge of the resource center project.

Already, the Hernando County Health Department has opened a part-time care and treatment clinic on the premises. And county planners are meeting soon there to discuss transitional housing for the homeless.

A mental health care agency and culinary education program have expressed interest in locating in the center. Also proposed are high school diploma equivalency classes, substance abuse recovery gatherings, life skills coaching, job counseling and placement, safe food handling and restaurant employee training. Area civic groups and clubs are welcome to hold meetings in the multi-purpose rooms.

A pre-opening tour also revealed a personal hygiene suite, intended to fill a particular need of the homeless. It includes a handicapped-accessible shower and bathroom, plus a free wash-and-dry laundry area.

And the Sunday dinners, usually feeding 60 to 70 people, are now served in the center's spacious dining areas instead of in rental space.

The newly organized food pantry and a certified commercial kitchen will fuel the nonprofit's other food offerings: weekend meal backpacks for more than 700 school children, weekly food distributions to some 50 homeless people, and hot meals and groceries delivered weekly to more than 250 seniors.

People Helping People's beneficence is designed as a "hand up, not a hand out," Brainard said, although services are free. "People who come, we'll ask them to help in maintaining our building. We'll feed you, help give you skills, but you've got to take some responsibility for yourself. If we don't help people change their patterns, they'll never be able to get out of poverty."

"We're trying to make it easier for other organizations and individuals to volunteer with us," said Evan Sommerfeld, the new full-time executive director. He succeeds VanMetre, who served part-time as a volunteer. Sommerfeld, the group's first salaried employee and now a Spring Hill resident, has 10 years of experience as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America.

"We're trying to expand opportunities to various age groups," Sommerfeld said. "We're trying to set things up so people can help in an area in which they're interested."

Fund drives are needed, Sommerfeld said, for health care inventories and computers, for instance. Donations by hundreds of individuals and local businesses, both cash and equipment, have funded the project to date.

"I'm so pleased with the generosity in Hernando County," Brainard said.

The foundation gift came from the Lake House Civic Association. When the Kenlake neighborhood group turned over its Lake House to Hernando County and disbanded several years ago, it donated its remaining treasury.

"If we weren't able to have that, we wouldn't have been able to do this," Brainard said. People Helping People owes $407,600 on an initial $426,986 mortgage for the project. The current year's budget is $337,000.

Rotary clubs of Brooksville, Spring Hill and Spring Hill Central joined to obtain a grant that funded the hygiene suite and laundry. A physician entrepreneur gave commercial kitchen equipment. Area restaurants began donating Sunday meals so the nonprofit's cash could go toward building efforts. Nativity Lutheran Church gave chairs. Career Source gave computer tables. Suntrust Bank gave office furniture. The Jersey Café gave copiers and big-screen TV.

"You get gratification if you can do something for those less fortunate than you," VanMetre said.

In other words, Sommerfeld added, "It feels good to do good."

The center's operating hours are yet to be set. Phone (352) 515-1663 or (540) 537-6305; email at admin@phphernando.org.

Contact the writer at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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