TAMPA – In a tent the size of a football field, buzzing refrigerated trailers await donations of turkeys and hams. Volunteers are just beginning to stack boxes of green beans, corn and sweet potatoes that will soon be part of holiday meals for neighbors in need. A section of the tent where they will put the donated Christmas presents – the bikes, the Barbies – is cleaned and ready.
It’s almost like a quiet moment before the party begins.
“It looks empty right now,” said Marcella Videla, a seasonal worker with Metropolitan Ministries, as she worked under the large white holiday tent at 2609 N Rome Ave. in West Tampa on Tuesday, the second day it opened. “But not for long.”
And this year, the charity that serves area counties is trying something new to reach people where they need it most.
In addition to their vacation tents in Tampa, Trinity and Dade City, Metropolitan Ministries plans to open a dozen neighborhood pop-up tents throughout the Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties area. These will be places where people in need can pick up food and toys, but only on specific dates. No donations will be accepted at pop–sites.
Two more pop-ups will open in December in hard-hit Lee County, where residents are still recovering from Hurricane Ian.
Metropolitan Ministries spokeswoman Justine Burke said COVID, the economy and rental costs have all played a role in this year’s requirements. They expect to help up to 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 as a drive-thru so donors don’t have to get out of their cars — although anyone who wants to see how it works can get a guided tour of the tent. Last year, due to COVID, recipients received prepackaged boxes of holiday food. But this year families who have signed up can enter the tent for shopping using donated shopping carts, with music, snacks and a place for children to play – a chance for people to choose what they want. ‘they know like their families,’ Burke said.
“They don’t want to ask for help,” she said. “It’s hard to humble yourself and ask.”
Donations come from businesses, office food drives and locals dropping off a bag or two of groceries. What they give may reflect the diversity of the region — baked beans, black beans, white rice, yellow rice.
On the wish list: frozen turkeys and hams, canned yams, stuffing, canned vegetables, canned potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, cereals, rice, beans, macaroni and cheese, dessert mixes, gift cards and toys and gifts for ages 4-4 17.
“If you had to pick the most needed, it’s really those teenagers,” Burke said. “We still have a shortage there.”
The year’s effort is expected to include 14,000 volunteers, including retired Skip Carpenter, whose friend started it five years ago.
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“You can see the people you’re helping,” Carpenter said Tuesday. “I know it’s necessary, and it’s okay to give back, and we’re just blessed as a family.”
“That face-to-face experience with the volunteer and the person seeking help is a special moment,” Burke said.
Videla, who worked at the front, said when she was little and her family was on the verge of becoming homeless, the metropolitan ministries helped her.
“My mother donated for years before she died,” Videla said.
She looks forward to the bustle that the holidays bring to the big tent.
“It’s fast,” she said. “It’s funny.”
“The donations really go out as fast as they come in,” Burke said.
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For more information on who is eligible and how to register for holiday assistance, donation drop-off locations, dates and times, and how to volunteer, go to metromin.org and click on the red Holiday Central icon.