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Sunday Conversation: Trinity Cafe's Mandy Cloninger revels in her 'year of abundance'

As the executive director of the Trinity Cafe, Mandy Cloninger is thrilled to combine her professional work with her personal passion for providing basic needs for people.

She works tirelessly to help the cafe's two locations serve nearly 500 meals a day (with dignity) to the homeless and food insecure. With the help of volunteers and a dedicated staff, the cafe even managed to serve its guests through Hurricane Irma.

Cloninger also volunteers at her church and recently welcomed her former "little" into her home and is raising her as her daughter with her partner, Brad Frost.

But Cloninger says her generosity pales in comparison to her mother's giving heart.

Growing up in the west Texas town of Littlefield — home of country star Waylon Jennings, Cloninger says proudly — she watched Tommy and Kay Cloninger, her salt-of-the-earth parents, provide for others. Kay worked in a factory turning raw cotton into denim, but always found time to take meals to the sick and bake for friends at work. Her dad worked as a letter-carrier but often lent a hand to neighbors in need.

"We lived in a small town so we knew our neighbors who were struggling to get by," Cloninger said. "I honestly think my mom's example is why I am half as kind as I am now."

Cloninger, 40, recently spoke with Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about her work at the cafe, the nonprofit's upcoming three-night fundraiser, "Stick A Fork In Hunger," and why she calls 2017 her personal "year of abundance."

When the doors swing open at the Trinity Cafe and guests start to walk in, what's the emotion?

Honestly, it feels like we're welcoming someone into our home. It feels like our dining room table at home. That's mostly because of the sense of connection and community that we have with our volunteer family who serves with us every day as well as some of the guests who continue to rely on us and we've gotten to know by name.

Probably the most beautiful thing about the cafe is the connection that our volunteers have with our guests. They know they're welcomed, they're safe and they're going to be served with dignity that day. I think the meal is an important part, but the food is 49 percent, the dignity is the other 51 percent.

I think those who have never been to the cafe may think your guests are people who are not trying to become gainfully employed, who are sponging off the system, but in many cases these are people who do have jobs and need a bridge to make ends meet, right?

Absolutely. I had this conversation with my daughter Alyssa not too long ago because she was serving at the cafe during Hurricane Irma when she was out of school. She said of this particular guest, Jim, "He doesn't look homeless." And I said, "What does homelessness look like to you?" You know kids, they hate it when you try to make a lesson out of everything. She said, "You know, dirty and maybe they smell a little funny."

I said, "Sometimes that's true of our homeless neighbors but for folks who come to the cafe, many of them have a home. Jim is on disability, he lives in the neighborhood, he has a very modest amount of food stamps and he just needs a little to get by, so he relies on us for that meal." And then we talked about homelessness and how it's a struggle for our neighbors to stay clean living on the streets, but that homelessness doesn't always look like the man you might see on the corner.


It looks like families with children who are struggling to get by, living in their cars. It looks like me, it looks like you. Unfortunate circumstances, they happen to everyone. It can be a job loss, an accident, a medical issue. That's why Trinity Cafe serves unconditionally because any of us could be in need of a meal. Our doors are open to serve those who are in need of a meal. With 1 in 6 people in Tampa Bay, 700,000 people, you really can't label what that looks like.

There are a lot of ways you can help people, but providing food for people resonates in a different way.

Food is an introduction. It's how you get to know people. You look in his or her eyes and you recognize our shared humanity. You build an intentional community when you sit down around a dining room table and eat with someone. That's what we do every day at Trinity Cafe.

What did you do before you started working with nonprofits and how did you get into social work?

I started my career in higher education, health care, public relations and fundraising. I went through a divorce almost nine years ago, and I was really struggling to heal and with forgiveness, and I found my way forward in service to others. I started volunteering for my local church.

I went to Guatemala on a mission trip, and I fell in love with two little girls named Christy and Lisa. I built a relationship with them over the course of a week. We read together, we played together and when I met their mom, she was washing their clothes in a dirty, trash-strewn, polluted river. I had never seen a water crisis like that. It broke my heart and I came home different. I started volunteering, first with my local church at Open Arms, serving the homeless a meal there. The first time I served there, I could barely smile. It broke my heart so much. Now I have people at Trinity Cafe who I genuinely care about, that I would call friends and I'm happy to see their growth and their support and have their friendship through service.

The cafe has expanded to a second location, Trinity 2, in the First Church of God on Busch Boulevard. If you kept feeding people at the original cafe, you were doing fine. What is motivating you and the organization to expand your services?

It's knowing that 700,000 people in this community struggle with hunger and they don't know where their next meal is coming from. We have a wonderful asset that the community has provided. We were able to purchase our facility on Nebraska Avenue completely debt free with the community's support, so it's a community-wide asset. If we can prepare more meals and take them to areas where the need is great, and there's not a daily meal being served, we should. We should do more to help. That's the vision. That no one is hungry.

Experts say hunger is a problem we can solve, but it sounds daunting.

It sounds daunting, but there are abundant resources in our community. It's a matter of getting them to the folks who need them the most. And it's about building relationships with people so they can make their own community stronger. I think we've seen that with our second location in amazing ways. We have new volunteers, new businesses, new chambers — the Temple Terrace Chamber got involved — new faith communities, the University of South Florida. These are folks who may have served intermittently with us at our Nebraska location, now we're in their backyard and they rally around our guests and support them. And our partnership with the church has been a win-win for both of us. When the community comes together we can solve big problems like hunger, like homelessness.

You're calling 2017 your personal year of abundance for you and Brad. Tell me about that.

We went out in faith and became parents this year when we invited Alyssa, who started as my little sister in Big Brothers Big Sisters, into our home. We became her guardians and eventually certified foster parents. Relationship is at the foundation of this. God can put opportunities in front of us on a daily basis and we can say yes to them or we can say no to them. Alyssa needed a home and I love her dearly and so does Brad and we wouldn't want anyone else to raise her but us.

It takes a lot to open up your home?

The love and the connection and the blessings and the opportunity to share your life with someone far outweigh the challenges. I wasn't able to have children when I tried.

And when you stopped trying?

When I stopped trying, I got blessed with a teenager and a baby in the same year (she's due in February).... I think God knows the desires of your heart.

What people can expect at Stick A Fork In Hunger?

You can experience the same dignified culinary delights that our guests experience every day at lunch, but with a little extra fare each night. We're partnering with celebrity chefs each night. Everything we raise will help us to purchase the food at a modest $2.50 a plate to serve more community members in need a delicious meal with dignity.