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  1. Opinion

Vacationing volunteers just part of the story at Trinity Cafe

Published Jul. 31, 2015

He could have ridden the daunting dips and climbs of Gwazi at Busch Gardens instead of riding over to Nebraska Avenue, armed with large bags of rice and buckets of fresh vegetables.

He could have donned a pair of Mickey ears instead of a pair of vinyl gloves. He could have sat by the gulf with an umbrella drink instead of sitting with the guests as a volunteer at the Trinity Cafe, where more than 280 hot, nutritious meals are served every day.

London resident Anil Dala did spend much of his vacation with his wife and two children enjoying Tampa Bay as a tourist. On Tuesday, however, he devoted part of his holiday to a cause greater than entertaining himself.

"This is a part of Tampa I would have never seen if I didn't make the effort," Dala said.

When Dala told his sister he wanted to volunteer helping the hungry and homeless, she directed him to Trinity Cafe. But the cafe, as it does with nearly all its volunteers, surpassed his expectations.

"I thought it would be like a soup kitchen with people going through a serving line," said Dala, 49. "This is a much better experience for them. Quite frankly, it's an experience they don't get to enjoy very often and it's one we take for granted when we go to a restaurant."

Brightly lit and inviting, the cafe offers a warm refuge for its guests. That's right, guests. They're not classified as homeless or poverty-stricken or food insecure, although all those adjectives may describe their plight. At Trinity, they're guests and they're treated that way.

"Humanity begins with a meal" reads the sign at the front of the cafe.

A host shows guests to the table and servers bring their food. On this day, it's salad with raspberry balsamic vinaigrette (Trader Joe's donated the raspberries), pork patties stuffed with cheese grits, roasted potatoes, green beans and pumpkin chocolate chip moon pies filled with cream cheese for dessert.

Yes, it's as good as it sounds.

Dala enjoyed his time as a table host, chatting with guests including a man with a Vietnam Veterans ball cap and another with a shabby beard and mustache. Back home, he works with a charity called Just Imagine that raises money for HIV orphans in Goa, a state in Western India. Dala explained when mothers die of AIDS in Goa, the fathers often abandon the children.

After his positive experience at the Trinity Cafe, he wants to spread the word to other members of Just Imagine so they too can volunteer during their vacations.

Teens from the First Baptist Church of Naples also eschewed mall trips and sunbathing to come to the cafe. It was their second day at Trinity and a chaperone noted they brought more energy to the tasks and grew more comfortable talking to the guests.

They were learning that these deserving folks weren't much different from them, and they also discovered the kindness of the guests, who constantly thanked them and blessed them.

Trinity Cafe program director Cindy Davis said vacationing volunteers isn't as uncommon as you might think. Years ago, a group of Boston College students worked at the cafe during spring break. They shared their joy with students at nearby Northeastern, and now both universities send contingents every year.

Of course, locals also help the cafe sustain its mission. Davis and new executive director Mandelyn Cloninger are looking closely at how it can expand its efforts, perhaps to five ZIP code areas where the hunger gap is the greatest.

Whether you're vacationing or living here every day, it's clear we can't take a day off from trying to help.

That's all I'm saying.

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