PLANT CITY A small knot of people gathered in the shade of the picnic shelter at Courier Field in Plant City on a sweltering August afternoon. A few sat aloof and silent, but most displayed an easy familiarity with each other.
As dinner hour approached, more figures began to flow toward the shelter from all corners of the park. The later arrivals were welcomed jovially, as the group swelled from 10 to nearly 40 people. Some carried backpacks, others arrived empty-handed. They were disparate in color, age and gender, but united in purpose.
The homeless, displaced and disadvantaged came for a hot meal prepared and served by Friends In The Park.
Ron and Julie Dixon of Restoring Hope Global drove up at 5 p.m. sharp, hauling 10 large Pizza Hut pizzas and cold drinks.
After a welcome and short prayer, Julie Dixon, 45, dished out slices of cheese and pepperoni. “Usually we have nutritious meals,” she said. “This is a special treat.”
The Dixons began the effort to feed the area’s homeless about three years ago.
“We would just come to McCall Park and pray over the city and we started experiencing the homeless,” said Ron Dixon, 53. “I didn’t see [the homeless] until I came downtown and opened my eyes.”
In November 2009, the Dixons partnered with Northside Baptist Church and began serving meals to the homeless on Mondays and Tuesdays at McCall Park in downtown Plant City.
That early effort grew into Friends in the Park, a joint endeavor by 10 churches, organizations and individuals to serve hot meals seven days a week at Courier Field.
Each organization or individual selects a day or days to prepare meals. Restoring Hope Global, which has a food warehouse that contains donations from grocery stores such as Publix and Sweetbay, prepares and delivers meals each Thursday.
“These are good people,” said Julie Dixon. “I don’t like people to have to choose between electricity and food.”
Not all the people who come for food are homeless, said Roger, a 57-year-old who declined to give his full name. He said he is disabled and gets some assistance, but can’t meet expenses.
“You have to make choices,” he said. “I want to find a job, but I can’t find a job.”
The Dixons learn the names and stories, and offer information about agencies that might help the transition from homelessness to housing and jobs.
“We don’t want to give these people a handout,” said Ron Dixon. “We want to help them move to the next level.”
Rebecca Rothman, 27, a member First Baptist Church of Plant City, began to notice the number of homeless people in 2012, and proposed the church join the food ministry.
“I began to notice them a lot more, to see that we have a lot of homeless people,” she said. “There is a mix of women, children and men. It’s not always the same faces, but there are some regulars.”
First Baptist takes food to the park every Monday. Two or three volunteers prepare meals in the church kitchen, box it with utensils and napkins, and take a cooler with drinks.
“We try to get the food healthy and fresh with a lot of protein and vitamins to give them a lot of the nourishment we know they don’t get the rest of the day,” said Rothman. A recent meal included chicken tenders, rice, green bean casserole, sweet tea and dessert.
Prayer cards are distributed along with the meals, said Rothman. People can place their name and physical needs – such as sleeping bags, clothes, toiletries – on the card and volunteers gather what they can from the church’s clothes closet and return with items the following Monday.
“We really have had the whole congregation behind us for the most part. There are a lot of people that help out behind the scenes.”
“We call it the Church of the Park, because we want them to have that spiritual connection, as well as fill their bellies,” Rothman said. “A lot of the needs that I see are not only the physical needs, but also the emotional and mental needs.”
Even those not addicted to drugs or alcohol might turn to those destructive avenues once on the streets, Rothman said.
“I want the community to understand we want to rehabilitate them, we don’t want to enable them. We really want those rehabilitative services they are in need of.”
Barbara Granger, 49, learned about the effort as a staff member at First Baptist. She belongs to a Bible study group at Cowboy Up on Wednesday nights and suggested the congregation participate. Cowboy Up, a ministry that meets in a barn in Lithia with pastor and horse-trainer Skipper Calder, agreed to bring meals twice a month.
“We never dreamed there was such a large population of homeless in Plant City. It’s shocking,” Granger said.
A dozen or so Cowboy Up volunteers began cooking and delivering meals to Courier Field two weeks ago.
“We have a recipe and everybody shares the same recipe and cooks in their own home,” said Granger. One man always brings a cooler full of drinks and ice, she said. “You can be as involved as you want.”
“They loved it, loved it, they can’t wait to do it again,” Granger said of the volunteers. “They absolutely felt blessed so much more than the homeless. They get a meal, but we get to learn, we get to love. We are showing acceptance to these people.”
Those on the receiving end, she said, are kind and very grateful. Like Bertie Dunbar, 69, who said she appreciates the generosity and tries to give in return.
“I try to help out others here,” said Dunbar.
Most of those gathered for the meals watch their behavior. They know unruly actions will get them banned from the meals and, perhaps, from the park.
“If it gets out of control, [the city] will shut us down and we don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Julie Dixon. “We have a blessing in Officer Clem.”
Officer Clem is Plant City Community Redevelopment Area Officer Clem Fiol. The CRA officer role encompasses a lot of different hats, one of which is to provide a presence at the park during most meals. When he’s there, potential problems disintegrate.
“We’ve had a couple of little issues, and they’ve been resolved,” said Fiol.
He does have a few rules, though, like: “Kids eat first.”
“It’s just incredible and really nice that all these churches have organized this to help these people.” Fiol said. “Our chief (Plant City Police Chief Steven Singletary) is very supportive of it. He’s very committed to building relationships with the community.”
“It’s a great hour of the day, a very rewarding hour of the day,” Fiol said. “I get hugs when I go there.”
Kristie Roach, 30, said she hopes more people become aware of the homeless and their needs. “Plant City has no place for the homeless,” she said.
“There are a lot of different forms of homelessness,” said Rothman, who has started to research how other homeless needs might be met. “I would say Plant City needs some sort of temporary shelter or rehabilitation center,” she said.
“In a perfect world, we would have an eating room, wash room, laundry room…a place where people could gather,” said Ron Dixon.
As the last of the food is devoured, the gathering disperses, fading into the far corners of the park.
“Rain or shine, they come,” Granger said. “They’ve got to eat.”
Friends In The Park participants
Restoring Hope Global
First Baptist Church of Plant City (Church in the Park)
Johnson Road Baptist Church
Knights Baptist Church
Midway Baptist Church
Northside Baptist Church
Transforming Life Church
Cowboy Up Church
And several private individuals.
For more information, call Restoring Hope Global at (813) 757-6900