Pam Smith, a resident of Cross Creek, oversees the annual Thanksgiving food drive, now in its 17th year. She has been part of those efforts for the last 10 years. She currently serves as president of the St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church Conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It is based at the church, which is located on Cross Creek Blvd. and one of New Tampa’s largest churches, serving more than 3,000 families.
“St. Vincent de Paul is a standalone, nonprofit organization that helps people in need with food, shelter, clothes and utilities,” Smith explains. It is not a ministry of the church, but is a separate organization. It is made up of Catholic men and women who want to serve the needy and suffering people in their community. It started in France in the 1830s, and was established in the United States in St. Louis, MO, in 1845. The Conference at St. Mark’s is one of 10 in the West Hillsborough District. All are based out of local churches.
“We run a year-round food pantry serving New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, and some surrounding areas,” explains Pam, who also is a member of St. Mark.
At Thanksgiving each year, that effort expands to work with dozens of organizations throughout Tampa and beyond to identify groups and individuals who don’t have the means to buy their own Thanksgiving dinners.
Smith explains she works with outreach groups, such as local Catholic churches, New Life Ministries Outreach, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Advisory Council, and many others, along with 16 local schools, to identify families in need. Several groups pick up a total of 1,300 prepared boxes of food to distribute among their clients. This year, St. Vincent de Paul volunteer drivers made an additional 408 home deliveries to families in New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, and other parts of Tampa and surrounding communities.
“People don’t think there’s a lot of need in our area,” says Smith, “but that’s because it’s hidden. Our ZIP code actually has the least food resources available, compared to the number of hungry people. We – who are fortunate – don’t think this need is present in our community, but it is.”
Smith and dozens of volunteers spend three weeks collecting food, sorting it, and boxing it up. They get food donations and financial support from the people of St. Mark’s, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Tampa Palms, and other local churches. Plus, many schools whose social workers and guidance counselors identify children in need also hold drives to collect food for the effort. Smith says Boy Scout Troop 148 from St. Mark, the National Honor Society at Wharton High School and Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) at Freedom High School are among the organizations that provide the resources and manpower to make the colossal project happen.
“It’s not just an effort of St. Vincent de Paul,” Pam says. “It truly takes a whole conglomeration of community groups to make this happen.”
Steve Channels is Pam Smith’s neighbor in Cross Creek, and he’s also a Freedom High School teacher and advisor for the school’s FBLA group, and leader with Boy Scout Troop 180 and Cub Scout Pack 360, both in Tampa Palms. He says he has participated in Thanksgiving food drive for eight or nine years now, encouraging the groups he leads to collect food, and bringing volunteers out to help. He says this year, he and about 40 Freedom students sorted food and packed nearly 700 boxes of the 1,300 that were filled for families.
“Students get community service hours, but that’s not why they’re there,” Channels says. “Most of them really want to be there because they enjoy being a part of what this is all about.”
“People are very generous,” says Smith, who explains the Thanksgiving outreach takes about $35,000 in addition to the food donations that are collected and countless volunteer hours. She says each family receives enough non-perishable food items for a complete Thanksgiving meal, including stuffing, potatoes, rice, beans, corn, yams, gravy, cranberries, and even cake mix and frosting. This year, they also received a box of Bisquick and a loaf of bread. Each family also receives a gift card to buy a turkey. “We used to distribute turkeys, but logistically, it’s difficult. Plus, the week before Thanksgiving, the price of turkey is much less than we can purchase in advance, so we give a gift card, which allows the families to purchase their own turkeys at a lower cost, and allows us to serve more people.”
Smith says there’s one word to describe how people feel when they receive the Thanksgiving box that’s been prepared for them, and that’s “grateful.”
“The folks we deliver food to are very vulnerable,” she explains. “Just yesterday, I delivered a box to a family in a motel. Another family had just moved into an apartment, and it had literally nothing in it. No couches, nothing in the kitchen, no TV. It’s sobering when you go to them. But, they are super grateful, because now, at least they have food.”
She says she followed up with the family in the apartment so that St. Vincent de Paul can help them get the basic things the mom, dad, and three children need.
And while the Thanksgiving food distribution has just wrapped up, Dec. 5 marks the first weekend of collecting toys, which will be given to children in need for Christmas.
“We provide toys to kids, and also socks, shoes, and pajamas to children of migrant workers, who prefer those gifts at Christmas,” Smith explains. A “giving tree” has been set up at St. Mark’s Church for the church members and larger community to share their generosity.
If you would like to support the efforts of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Mark’s, you can drop off or mail donations to St. Vincent de Paul, in care of St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church at 9724 Cross Creek Blvd. To volunteer, email Smith at SVDP@stmarktampa.org.