Hope on horizon

Jeff Carpenter, a volunteer driver with the Wildwood Soup Kitchen and a Village of Largo resident, picks up Edna Washington to take her shopping. Carpenter delivers meals from the Wildwood Soup Kitchen to Washington once a week, as well as takes her shopping.

For residents caught in poverty’s grip in communities around The Villages, Friday was a big day.

Four local faith-based pantries received thousands of pounds of donated food as part of the annual College Colors Day Food Drive — and more deliveries are coming.

Wildwood Soup Kitchen volunteer Barbie Strome, of the Village of Sabal Chase, wiped tears from her eyes as volunteers delivered about 700 pounds of food Friday. “The kindness of people who donated will feed so many people for a long time,” Strome said. “I don’t think people are aware of how in need people are outside (The Villages), or not enough people are aware. This is such a blessing.” 

The College Colors Day Food Drive is one of many ways local faith-based organizations work to combat poverty in ways the government can’t — powered in large part by the generosity of Villagers.

Since 2012, Villages residents have donated nearly 113,000 pounds of food  — including more than 40,000 pounds last year — as part of the food drive that taps into the friendly competition between alumni and fan groups, who battle for bragging rights for donating the largest amount of nonperishable food.

During the food drive, club members can deliver donations to longtime event sponsor Bealls, specifically the locations in The Villages and Lady Lake, and donations too large to deliver to those stores are taken to the Christian Food Pantry, Wildwood Soup Kitchen, Grace Tabernacle Food Pantry and Love In the Name of Christ of the Heart of Florida.

This year’s drive, once again put on by The Villages Media Group, began a week ago and culminates Friday, when residents and college clubs from all corners of The Villages will convene at Spanish Springs Town Square for a huge celebration during which the final results will be announced and a trophy awarded to the team that donates the most.

For the pantries and soup kitchen, the donations come at a critical time. In the summertime when many Villages residents are away, the shelves get pretty bare, Strome said. “Now the shelves are full.”

In addition to the hot meals the Wildwood Soup Kitchen serves beginning at 11 a.m. six days a week, its volunteers deliver even more meals Monday through Friday and include an additional sack lunch Fridays, said Mike Truax, of the Village of Mallory Square and the Friday meal preparation captain.

“We’re in the process of putting out close to 500 meals this morning,” he said.

Nothing is wasted, he said. Any extra cooked one day is frozen to be served the next. 

Members of about half a dozen of the more than 30 participating churches were working in the kitchen Friday morning.

Meals cost the soup kitchen an average of $1.98 per meal, said soup kitchen board Vice President Don Huggins, of the Village of Glenbrook. He said the soup kitchen had used up almost all the canned goods from another food drive last spring and had been buying cans before the College Colors donations.

“It helps us a lot,” Huggins said. “This time of year, we need canned goods especially.”

About 2,400 pounds of food was delivered over two days to the Grace Tabernacle Food Pantry on Warm Springs Avenue. Members of the UConn Sports Club delivered some of it late Friday morning.

“Thank you, UConn. Bless you,” said volunteer Conni Eveland, of the Village of Sanibel. “This really helps keep our shelves full.”

The shelves Friday morning had big bare spots that were about to be replenished. Volunteer Ivan Eveland, of the Village of Sanibel, said they were sorting food delivered already in another room before putting it on the appropriate shelf.

The 2,400 pounds of food is enough to feed about 37 families for a week without the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities the food pantry also receives, said Grace Tabernacle Food Pantry administrators Steve and Kathy Brunner, of Lake Panasoffkee. They said families get an average of 65 pounds of food, about half canned pork, macaroni and cheese and peanut butter from the USDA and about half from donations such as those from the College Colors and other food drives. The pantry gives food to 85 to 100 families a week, the Brunners said.

In Lady Lake, the Christian Food Pantry — a ministry of North Lake Presbyterian Church — also received a shipment Friday. One of the delivery drivers was Patrick Detterbeck, the food drive coordinator for the Penn State Tri-County Chapter of Central Florida. 

“It always surprises me every year,” said Detterbeck, of the Village of Dunedin. “We think we have our last contribution, and then we get more.”

Volunteers such as Charlie McDonald, of the Village of Liberty Park, ran the pantry as carts full of rice, canned goods, juice and other nonperishables rolled in. McDonald said the rice alone would last a month.

The delivery means everything, said Rita Hill, another volunteer.

“Sometimes our shelves are empty around this time of year,” said Hill, of the Village of Buttonwood.

Today, volunteers at the Christian Food Pantry in Lady Lake will sort through the donated food that arrived Friday and put it on the shelves or store it in the pantry’s shed.

The deliveries coming in this week are wonderful, said Charlene O’Connor, who has volunteered at the pantry for 14 years along with her husband, Kevin, who has worked there for 15 years. Earlier in the week, the pantry received a couple of other deliveries of food from college fan clubs. The couple from the Village of Chatham usually work on Wednesdays, but they both came in extra days to help with all the donations coming in.

“Over the years, I just never realized just how many people are in such need for food,” Charlene O’Connor said.

An estimated 15.5% of Florida’s residents live below the poverty line, about 3% higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s just over 3 million people living below $25,750 for a family of four.

Driven by The Villages, Sumter County boasts Florida’s second-lowest poverty rate at 9.2%, but deep pockets of impoverishment can be found nearby. Forty miles to the south of The Villages lies the community of Istachatta, with a poverty rate of 23.6%. Forty miles to the north, Marion County’s Ocala National Forest is home to 45,000 people and a poverty rate of 22%.

For the faith-based groups called to help, The Villages has the wherewithal to make a difference. Its metropolitan statistical area boasts a household median income of $54,771, fourth-highest in Florida.

For nearby residents struggling to feed themselves or their families, The Villages is a godsend. Nearly 100 houses of worship operate in Sumter County alone — one for every 1,300 people.

The Christian Food Pantry of Lady Lake filled the void for 58-year-old Dawn Reigh when she needed a little extra food during the summer when her grandchildren, ages 5 and 9, came to visit. She works cleaning private homes and her husband, who lost his job as he battled cancer, is not working.

“They’re all wonderful people,” she said. “They gave me plenty of food and it helped a lot during the summer.”

She continues to go to the pantry twice a month and receives other assistance and advice for resources.

Carrol Neal, director of the Christian Food Pantry, said she sees more and more people such as the Reighs who are helping to care for their grandchildren.

“It’s sad right now that so many seniors are helping to raise children again,” Neal said.

The summer break for schoolchildren leaves many with little or no access to school food programs, but poverty doesn’t take a holiday. Area pantries see an increase of up to 100 extra families seeking their services.

Beyond the Walls Food Pantry also sees an increase in families served during the summer, said Colleen Brooks, director of the ministry.

“In the summer, some days we’ll see about 10 children who come with their grandparents,” Brooks said.

Brooks is passionate about serving those who are hungry. She said the ministry always will meet people’s emergency needs.

“We need to stop hunger. We do that by loving our neighbors and feeding the children,” she said. “When you look into the eyes of the children, it just touches your heart.”

The mission of keeping food on the table year-round also gets more challenging for pantries during the summer because seasonal Villages residents are away, which causes a drop in the number of volunteers and donations. While each facility serves different needs, all rely on donations of food and money to feed people.

The Salvation Army of Lake & Sumter Counties sponsors a summer day camp and provides enrolled children with breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, said Major Marie Harris, public relations and volunteer coordinator for the organization. During its nine weeks, the camp provided 2,250 meals to about 50 children ages 5 to 12 years old, she said. An after-school program begins Sept. 9, and at least 60 volunteers are needed.

The Salvation Army served about 10 to 15 additional people at its food pantry and its community breakfast during the summer, Harris said.

The Wildwood Soup Kitchen provides supplemental food for children to take home through its Snack Pack Program. Packs are filled with items such as tuna, fruit and pudding cups, granola bars and peanut butter crackers. During the school year, 120 snack packs a week go to the Wildwood Elementary School. However, 75 packs a week go to Center Hill Children’s Mission all year long, said Donna Slider, soup kitchen manager. 

On Friday, Slider said it had been a “really good week” with all the College Colors donations coming in to the pantry. “We’re grateful for all the donations — we’re filling our shelves,” she said

Our Mother of Mercy Food Pantry’s mission is simply to feed the hungry good things, says Thom Horning. He and his wife, Betty Anne, are coordinators for the pantry in Wildwood, which is a ministry of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. 

“As an extension of that mission, we want to provide a balanced selection of nutritional foods, as well as some hygiene products,” Horning said. “In addition to nonperishable items, we provide fresh produce, meats, fish and bakery products. We do not provide hot meals like a soup kitchen; we are more like a grocery store. We aspire to provide service in a welcoming atmosphere of joy, peace and respect for all.”

A number of Villages neighborhoods, organizations, clubs and businesses collect food and donations for the pantry. “They keep our shelves stocked so that we can provide our essential services day in and day out,” Horning said.

The group serves about 350 households or 1,000 people each month. It has more than 200 active volunteers — and nearly all of them are Villagers.

The Wildwood Food Pantry is looking forward to the return of snowbirds because of the summer decrease in donations, said Marlene Huggins, who helps manage the program. But one thing doesn’t change regardless of the time of year.

“When you’re poor,” she said, “the need just doesn’t go away.”

Associate Managing Editor Leah Schwarting contributed to this report. Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com. Staff writer Laura Sikes can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5307, or laura.sikes@thevillagesmedia.com.