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MetMin's Holiday Tent readies for another year of special moments

The diabetic woman and her young son had taken two buses to get to the Metropolitan Ministries Holiday Tent, but she hadn't taken her insulin before the trip, and was too weak to stand by the time she arrived.

Her little boy didn't need to see her in an ambulance, she said.

Just as Metropolitan Ministries President and CEO Tim Marks was getting ready to call 911 anyway, a basket of fresh oranges caught his eye — and mother and son went home with a warm holiday meal and gifts for the tree.

"I don't think we've had oranges before or since in the tent, but in that moment, there they were," Marks said.

The holiday tent, now in its 21st year, seems to abound with examples of little miracles like that.

Metropolitan Ministries has collected and distributed holiday meals and gifts to needy families since 1972 in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Polk counties.

The tent found a new home last year when The Heights Tampa broke ground on the site of its previous location on Florida Avenue.

Encore, Tampa Housing Authority's new development designed to provide a culturally diverse community for low and fixed-income residents, donated 36,500 square feet for the new tent.

As many as 10,000 volunteers are expected to greet at least 18,000 families at the tent this season, an increase from last year due to what Marks called "elongated need" after Hurricane Irma costs like evacuation and insurance left many without money for the holidays.

The tent opened after Irma to give out food and water, cell phone charging and advice about how to file insurance claims and even a few privately-donated generators.

"The day after the storm, we didn't have power, but we knew it was important to be here," said Justin Burke, senior director of marketing and communications.

Almost all of the slots for November volunteers have already been filled.

"Volunteers always say that they get so much more back than they give," said Burke. "Especially in the holiday tent, they get that one-on-one experience."

The charity is offering more ways to give this year, including participation in Giving Tuesday, a 24-hour national day of giving on Nov. 28, and an online holiday store where donors can select a specific gift.

"People love to shop online, and we want people to be able to give in whatever way is easiest for them," Burke said.

Clients also will be able to receive fresh produce through a partnership with Feeding Tampa Bay that began last year.

Burke, who has experienced many of what she calls "Metro moments" during her 10 years with the charity, was working at the donation drop-off one evening when a woman asked her if she had any bicycles. Her 7-year-old son had never had one.

They usually only receive a handful of bicycles and keep them out of sight, said Burke, but had received a large donation just a few days earlier.

"I wheeled out a nice, new bike, and this woman dropped to her knees in tears," Burke said.

"The reason why this is the best job ever is because of those moments."

Those seeking help must present birth certificates and Social Security cards for each family member.

"If I told you to bring me all that, you would have a hard time, but we have families who do," Marks said. "It shows how serious the need is."

Marks remembered meeting a woman while driving the shuttle back to the Marion Transit Center that has stayed with him. She couldn't work because of her disability and had a daughter with special needs.

He saw her shoes, a beat-up pair of sandals, and asked if she ever splurged on herself.

"I don't have anything extra, I never splurge," she replied.

Marks found her a new pair of shoes.

This year's tent especially needs Spanish speakers and leadership-minded people who can show up once a week or a few times during the season to train other volunteers, Marks said.

Volunteers try to sit down with each client and learn the story behind their need.

"Some people think that these folks are making bad decisions or doing drugs and that's how they end up needing our help," she said.

"We don't ask what's wrong with you; we ask, what happened to you?"

The tent, located near the intersection of N Nebraska Avenue and E Cass Street, is open for donations now and will remain open through December. The most needed items are frozen turkeys, cereal, yams, stuffing, gift cards, and gifts for toddlers and teenagers.

"Now more than ever, I see that people are wanting to do good and be part of something bigger than themselves," Burke said. "Whether it's a can of potatoes or a flatbed of frozen turkeys, it's a gift to see hearts that give in the midst of so much negativity."

Contact Libby Baldwin at Follow her at @LibBaldwin