This is the first in a series of articles on local South County area food pantries that benefit from the Have a Heart Caring Castle Food Drive, which runs through Feb. 29
By KEVIN BRADY – For The Observer
It's pretty simple for the 63-year-old Wimauma grandmother who looks after seven children, all under the age of 12. Were it not for the food pantry at Our Lady of Guadalupe, the little ones in her charge would go hungry.
The woman and her husband — they did not want their names used — are currently raising seven children. Two they adopted — ages 10 and 12. Then there are two 8-year-old grandchildren and three great- grandchildren ages 3, 2, and 1.
How does she do it?
“On a hope and a prayer,” said the former resident of Bradenton, who has lived in Wimauma for more than a decade. “It's rough some days but we just do what we have to do.
“[Bradenton] was really bad with a lot of drive-by shootings and drugs,” she recalled. The breaking point came when her 6-year-old grandson came home and said people were selling drugs at the corner. That was the last straw for grandma, who moved the family to Wimauma.
“I just had to get the kids out of there.”
While her husband works, “they recently cut his hours,” so the family falls in that benefit twilight zone where he earns just enough that the family does not qualify for food stamps.
“We are just scraping by. It's just by the grace of God every month that we make our house payment and if it wasn't for Our Lady's Pantry, I don't know what I would do. We are in that little bracket where you make just enough where you don't qualify, but you don't make enough to do anything with. If it wasn't for the Pantry, my kids would go hungry.”
The state finally helped her with funds for the youngest children to attend preschool, a godsend because “it was just too much having them here every day, all day long, because they are babies.”
That's when she turned to Our Lady's Pantry, one of several food pantries from Gibsonton to Wimauma benefiting from the Have a Heart Caring Castle food drive. The drive runs through Feb. 29.
Our Lady's Pantry serves more than 400 local families a week. With space at a premium, these families are served in two shifts, with one group of 200 coming every other week.
First-time visitors to the pantry are asked to bring identification, along with some proof of address with their name and address on it, such as a utility bill. Can't speak English? Come along anyway. Interpreters are usually on hand.
Despite her own full plate, the Wimauma grandma still finds time to volunteer at the Pantry. “I get up at 5 a.m. every morning and just get everyone up and out the door to where they need to be, and I just go volunteer,” she said.
“Then you come home, do the housework and get dinner cooked, go to bed, and do it all over again. It's my way of giving back, but it's also a chance to have adult conversation.”
Volunteering three days a week for the last four years, she has seen a substantial increase in those using the Pantry. “We are hitting 200 families a week. When I first started, we had maybe 125 to 150 a week.”
Grandma's effort have not gone unnoticed by her oldest children.
“She feeds us and she sets a great example for us,” said the 12-year-old.
Feeding a full house
So how does she feed a family of nine every night? Spaghetti is a staple, although not with as much meat as she would like. Her recipe: 3 cans of spaghetti sauce
1-1.5 pounds of spaghetti
1 pound of hamburger meat
“There's usually not as much meat as I would like, but I try to add into some onions to try to flavor it,” she added.
Volunteers are on hand to welcome visitors to Our Lady's Pantry every Saturday morning between 7:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. The pantry is at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Migrant Mission, immediately south of Sun City Center Boulevard, on U.S. 301 in Wimauma
Food drive update
Only a few days into the food drive, which began on Feb. 1, organizers had a bumper donation of several cases of food from BubbaQue's BBQ, and Sunshine Café, both South County restaurants that are eager to help out.
“Those will help build the foundation of the 2016 castle,” said Roseanne Korfant, of Sun City Center's JSA Medical Group, who launched the food drive in 2014 in partnership with M&M Printing — the parent company of this paper. Also backing the food drive are News Channel 8 and Home Depot.
Organizers, who are hoping to top last year's food drive by more than 1,400 pounds, build a castle using canned goods and other nonperishable foodstuffs as bricks as donations arrive. Last year's food drive brought in 3,600 pounds of donations, exceeding the 2014 total by 1,000 pounds.