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Carlton: Giving at Christmas, an option to knocking people's hats off

Published Dec. 24, 2016

The boy looked to be about 5. He stood in line at Trinity Cafe, waiting with the grown-ups around him to be seated for the midday meal served to anyone who's hungry.

Every day, this dining room at the edge of downtown Tampa fills with the sounds of conversation and clanging cutlery, the whirl of volunteers moving between tables and the smells of hot food.

But the boy was focused on something else: a smallish bookcase against a wall, painted white and donated by local Girl Scouts who autographed it with their troop number, 3052. Which the boy likely didn't notice because he was taking in all the books.

Regularly, these shelves fill with colorful, donated children's books — books for babies, books about Amelia Bedelia and Captain Underpants, books for kids who have not yet had the pleasure of falling in love with Charlotte's Web. Sometimes there's teen lit, maybe a few required summer reading classics, too.

On this day, the boy looked and looked and finally reached for one. Then he sat down — right there on the floor — his head bent over the open pages.

Cindy Davis doesn't know his name, but that picture from earlier this year sticks with her: a child oblivious to the hungry and homeless filling the cafe, oblivious even to what treat the chef might have made for dessert that day, because he was lost in a book.

They go fast, these books — donated by book clubs or random people, taken home by kids who get to own them. At Trinity, a small building on an urban stretch of Nebraska Avenue, volunteers serve nearly 300 free sit-down meals on weekdays and breakfast on weekends. Many who come in have been bedding down outside or in shelters. Working people come, as do people who live in old motels. They see veterans and families here.

And kids.

Davis, Trinity's program director, says on a recent school vacation day — when there was no school lunch to count on — a third of the people who came for lunch at Trinity's newest location in the First Church of God on Busch Boulevard were children.

Maybe it seems lately the world has grown harder and colder. But at Trinity, they could, pardon the expression, write a book on the ways people manage to give.

You know the one about the loaves and fishes? A couple of years ago, Beth Ross' church doled out $100 to each family to see the good they could do with it. Ross decided on blankets to hand out at Trinity.

The first year she gathered 308 blankets — "so cool," she says. Last year it was 808. Ross, who by day works for a staffing company, created the nonprofit Blanket Tampa Bay. This year, there have been more than 3,000 blankets. Someone donated rain ponchos. She also hands out what Davis calls Blessing Bags of items like toothpaste, deodorant and socks. Hard to estimate the practical value of a clean pair of socks.

Speaking of required high school reading: Remember the part in Moby Dick about what a man does when he finds himself growing grim and barely able to keep himself from knocking people's hats off — a condition with which most of us are familiar?

Clean socks, a warm blanket, a book for a kid — that might do the trick.

For more information go to trinitycafe.org. Contact Sue Carlton at carlton@tampabay.com.

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