Helping others at the holidays, and all year-long

As the holidays approach — a big holiday meal — can help create a festive feel.

But, for some families, those kind of feasts are beyond their financial reach.

Jackie Smack, a volunteer with the Neighborhood Care Center, places a pair of pants on a hanger, and works them onto the rack inside the center’s clothing department. Smack has been volunteering at the center for five years. She said she feels blessed to help others in need. (Christine Holtzman)

That’s where The Neighborhood Care Center, in Zephyrhills, comes in.

It has been helping families at the holidays — and throughout the year — for more than two decades.

During the holidays, the care center seeks to help its recipients have the makings of a traditional holiday meal. For Thanksgiving, for instance, it plans to provide families with a frozen ham or chicken, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, stuffing, corn muffin mix, and pies. At Christmas, it provides recipients with turkey and all of the trimmings. Last year, it gave away 125 turkeys during the holidays.

But, helping others at the holidays is just a small part of what The Neighborhood Care Center does.

The organization sees a need and tries to address it.

“There’s always been a big problem of people not having everything they need – not having the money to buy it,” said Leanne Bickford, the nonprofit’s director, and also a volunteer.

The First Baptist Church in Zephyrhills began the initiative in 1993 to combat hunger and other dire circumstances that Zephyrhills residents face.

Now, a quarter-century later, the care center is still going strong.

It has an open pantry on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 9 a.m. to noon.

Each room at the center is stocked to address specific needs.

Children’s toys take up a portion of the bottom shelf of stacked canned goods, inside the warehouse of the Neighborhood Care Center. The canned goods on these shelves are reserved for the recipients of the center, to provide the makings of a Thanksgiving meal. The items consist mostly of canned pumpkin, pineapple, apple, and yams.

There’s a place for nonperishable foods and frozen meats. And, places for toys, furniture, clothing, tools, kitchen appliances and hygiene products.

Care center volunteers pride themselves on quality control, when it comes to accepting donations, Bickford said.

“My motto that I’ve tried to drill into everybody is ‘If you wouldn’t put it in your house, don’t take it’,” the director said.

The pantry relies solely on donations.

The contributions come from churches, local organizations and individuals —  including snowbirds.

Most of the food items come from the National Association of Letter Carriers food drive which occurs in May. That supply typically lasts until September.

Other donations come from Meals on Wheels, Panera Bread and Publix.

Dozens of gently used men’s, women’s and children’s shoes are neatly arranged on metal racks in the center’s shoe department.

Food is distributed as quickly as it comes in.

And, on any given day, 50 people or more may show up to receive furniture or clothing.

The service area for the center is restricted to Zephyrhills, because it can’t meet the needs of the entire county.

Beneficiaries must apply to receive items, but exceptions are made for homeless people who lack proper documents and photo IDs.

Sometimes the help goes beyond donated items, Bickford said.

“We’re not a full-fledged food pantry,” Bickford explained. “We are for emergency purposes – if they’re between food stamps or they come down from up north with nothing.”

When people are short on funds for utility and electric bills, or prescriptions, the care center can help to cover the expenses.

“I’ve had a mother come in with one child and they’re getting $350 worth of food stamps,” Bickford said. “Something is not right with this picture.”

Various churches allocate funds to the nonprofit in order to provide this assistance.

When the care center is unable to provide needed help, it makes referrals to other organizations, such as The Samaritan Project or The Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Volunteers Jackie Smack, left, and Leanne Bickford, who is also the center’s director, take a break from sorting the day’s donated items.

It also directs people to Zephyr Park to receive hot meals from local churches.

Bickford tries to get the word out about the care center when she speaks at various establishments, or in her daily encounters with strangers.

In addition to holiday meals, the care center also helps families to have happy holidays in other ways.

As Christmas approaches, the care center will host a Kids Shopping Day.

The Dec. 7 event, from 9 a.m. to noon, allows youth to pick out gifts for their parents.

Care center volunteers are hoping for a big turn-out to that event.

In the long-term, the goal is to find a bigger building to facilitate the growing number of donations.

Bickford put it like this: “There’s a big need, and I’m glad that we’re here to help (fill) that void.”

In helping others, she emphasizes the importance of preserving the recipients’ dignity.

“I keep telling people, ‘We need to treat these people the same way you want to be treated, because we never know when we could be coming in that door looking for help.

“We might be volunteering here right now, but you don’t know what’s in store tomorrow,” Bickford said.

For further information, call the care center at (813) 780-6822.

Helping others in need
Where: The Neighborhood Care Center, 5140 Sixth St., Zephyrhills
When: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to noon
Details: Zephyrhills residents in need can find an array of free items, including  food, clothes, kitchen supplies and furniture at the center.
Info: Call (813) 780-6822.

Published November 27, 2019

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