WIMAUMA — The families came to the Beth-El Farmworker Ministry on U.S. 301 for a turkey dinner, but received so much more.
The meal came with all the fixings, plus lots of fun: facepainting, family photos courtesy of Shutterbooth, a chance to meet Miss Florida (Miss America) Sara Zeng and an opportunity for kids to make something at the craft station. Each child also took home a book from the Nov. 7 event.
And if that weren't enough, each family was given a box of fresh produce and meats to take home thanks to Feeding Tampa Bay and TECO Energy.
The Power of Thanksgiving meal came courtesy of the Ryan Nece Foundation and the 75 teens who have signed up for the former Bucs leadership program that seeks to instill in them the "Power of Giving."
"This is the first year we have expanded the celebration out to Wimauma," said Allison Gorrell, chief of operations for the foundation. "Our kids get so much out of this. They're realizing how much they're giving to someone else by helping them come in and get a hot meal. That's truly the Power of Giving."
Giving has always been a big part of Nece's life. His family instilled in him the importance of thinking of others and giving what he could to help those less fortunate. When the linebacker joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team in 2002, he participated in many community events and supported various charitable organizations on behalf of the team.
But it wasn't enough. In 2006, Nece formed his own non-profit organization as a way to expand his service to his community. Today, a big part of the foundation focuses on his Student Service Program, which involves teaching high school students the importance of leadership and service.
"We have students from 15 schools in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties," Gorrell said. "They represent public, private and even home-schooled students who have to apply to be a part of this program. We have monthly meetings where they learn about principles of leadership and then we set up at least one service project a month."
These projects have included working with Tampa Bay Watch on environmental issues; Habitat for Humanity; working in the store at The Spring, a shelter for the homeless in Tampa.
"This is a two-year leadership development program for teens that gives them an opportunity to do direct volunteer service with organizations such as the Trinity Café on hunger and food insecurities," said Shelley Sharpe, CEO of the Ryan Nece Foundation. "They have worked with Metropolitan Ministries on homelessness, and organizations that deal with today's most serious issues like human trafficking, domestic violence, and veterans' affairs.
"We want each one of these students to find their passion for an issue that really resonates with them so they will become life-long community leaders."
That brand of leadership was on full display at Beth-El, where the teens served families who all have children attending the nearby Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA). Each student happily welcomed the guests, serving them like they were at a fine restaurant.
The enthusiasm and excitement they displayed through the evening made it clear these young people loved participating in the special project and making a difference in the lives of some of the community's most needy.
"This program has really opened my eyes to all of the problems in the Tampa Bay area," said Madison Farse, a senior at Riverview High School. "Teachers show us videos of things like poverty and hunger and homelessness, but you never really understand what it's like until you see it first hand. I've really been touched by every person I meet, every person I serve. It's really been overwhelming."
The Power of Thanksgiving celebration began in 2006 when Nece was still playing for the Bucs. At that time, dinners were given to the boys at Falkenberg Academy, a juvenile detention center. Nece would come and give a motivational talk to the boys.
From there, this special event has evolved to feeding families at the University Area Community Development Corporation on N 22nd Street in Tampa. More than 1,200 people were served at that location on Tuesday.
Nece didn't attend the Wimauma event, but did appear with Zeng, WWE wrestler Titus O'Neil, Bucs quarterback Ryan Griffin, Bucs cheerleaders, mascot Capt. Fear and the USF Sun Dolls.
Contact Kathy Straub at email@example.com.