This year, the charity known for donations at big holiday tents is also reaching into neighborhoods where residents struggle.
TAMPA – At a tent the size of a football field, humming refrigerated trailers await donated turkeys and hams. Volunteers are just starting to stack cans of green beans, corn and sweet potatoes that will soon to be part of holiday meals for neighbors in need. A section of the tent where they’ll put donated Christmas presents — the bikes, the Barbies — is cleared and at the ready.
It’s almost like a moment of calm before the party gets started.
“It’s looking empty for now,” seasonal Metropolitan Ministries employee Marcella Videla said as she worked under the big white holiday tent at 2609 N Rome Ave. in West Tampa Tuesday, the second day it was open. “But not for long.”
Besides their holiday tents in Tampa, Trinity and Dade City, Metropolitan Ministries plans to open a dozen neighborhood pop-up tents across the region in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. These will be places where people in need can pick up food and toys, but only on designated dates. No donations will be accepted at the pop–up sites.
Two more pop ups will open in hard-hit Lee County, where residents are still recovering from Hurricane Ian, in December.
Metropolitan Ministries spokesperson Justine Burke said COVID, the economy and rent costs have all played roles in this year’s need. They’re expecting to help as many as 37,000 families with one million pounds of food and 74,000 toys and gift cards. They’re hoping for 10,000 turkeys.
“People say ‘I used to donate. Now I need help,’” Burke said.
The Tampa tent operates like a drive-thru so donors don’t have to exit their cars — though anyone who wants to see how it works can get a tent tour. Last year, because of COVID, recipients got pre-packaged boxes of holiday food. But this year, families who have registered can come into the tent to shop using donated shopping carts, with music, snacks and a place for kids to play — a chance for people to pick out what they know their families like, Burke said.
“They don’t want to be asking for help,” she said. “It’s hard to humble yourself and ask.”
Donations come from companies, office food drives and locals who drop off a bag or two of groceries. What they give can reflect the region’s diversity — baked beans, black beans, white rice, yellow rice.
On the wish list: Frozen turkeys and hams, canned yams, stuffing, canned vegetables, boxed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, cereal, rice, beans, macaroni and cheese, dessert mixes, gift cards and toys and gifts for kids ages 4-17.
“If you had to pick a most needed, it’s really those teenagers,” Burke said. “We always have a shortage there.”
The year’s effort is expected to include 14,000 volunteers — including retiree Skip Carpenter, whose friend got him into this five years ago.
“You can see the people you help,” Carpenter said Tuesday. “I know it’s needed, and it’s good to give back, and we’re just blessed as a family.”
“That face-to-face experience with the volunteer and the person seeking help, that’s a special time,” Burke said.
Videla, who was working up front, said when she was little and her family was on the verge of being homeless, Metropolitan Ministries helped.
“My mom donated for years before she passed,” Videla said.
She’s looking forward to the bustle the holidays bring to the big tent.
“Donations really do come out as fast as they go in,” said Burke.
For information on who qualifies and how to register for holiday help, donation drop-off locations, dates and hours, and how to volunteer, go to metromin.org and click on the red Holiday Central icon.
Story from Tampa Bay Times.