Homeless ministry needs a home: Building sold, no place to store donations or feed Ruskin’s poorest

By PENNY FLETCHER

Pastor Freddie Roberts, right, with a patron looking for a little help from the ministry that is serving the homeless and needy in Ruskin. Below, a small sampling of food items given to those in need. Chere Simmons photos.

Pastor Freddie Roberts, right, with a patron looking for a little help from the ministry that is serving the homeless and needy in Ruskin. Below, a small sampling of food items given to those in need. Chere Simmons photos.

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The clock is ticking on a ministry that’s helping Ruskin’s homeless and poor too many ways to tell in this sentence.

Volunteers are many and dedicated (of course, they say they can always use more), but the building they’re currently operating out of has been sold, and the homeless ministry has to move before the new owners take possession.

Nobody knows when that will be.

If you want to see the ministry in action, go to the building just south of the Ruskin Post Office in the Thriftway Plaza on U.S. 41, north of Shell Point Road, on Thursday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. There you will see meals being provided to people who come out of their “homes” in abandoned buildings and handmade shelters in the woods.

The main problem for the ministry is that they have to find a place to which the many homeless in the Ruskin area can walk or ride a bike. They can’t go too far away, and very few of the homeless have vehicle transportation. A storefront or building on U.S. 41, near downtown, would be ideal to relocate the “store.” Of course, it would have to be a very reasonable rent or even donated by the owner.

Center for Restoration Ministries, a nondenominational church led by Freddie and Teresa Roberts, currently holds Sunday services in Big Jim’s Storage, Building 7, on College Avenue at 10:45 a.m., and Bible study Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. But they are continuing to feed the hungry in the empty Ruskin parking lot where Thriftway grocery and many other businesses used to thrive before I-75 was built in the late 1980s.

The story of the Center for Restoration Ministries is full of twists and turns.

Freddie Roberts has worked at Tropicana in Bradenton for more than 30 years, and his wife Teresa has a home day care business.

Before they came to Ruskin, they lived in Bradenton and had a ministry in Trilby — near Dade City — and hauled their four children back and forth on the long trek every time there were services. Their midpoint was Ruskin, and Freddie always stopped for gas at the Sunoco station.

“One Sunday, I was pumping gas, and I felt God was speaking to me, saying, ‘This is where I want a church,’ but quickly I put it off to my own imagination,” Freddie said. “After all, at that time, I knew nothing about Ruskin.”

The next time Freddie was pumping gas in Ruskin, he got the same message, but still thought it was his own inner voice.

Minerva Garcia, left, uses coupons to stretch the ministry’s food dollars. Madeline Hughes, right, manages the “store” that furnishes free items to Ruskin’s homeless and needy. The Center for Restoration Ministries supplies food, hygiene items, clothing, bedding and more to those in need. Now they are desparately searching for a new place to house their ministry in Ruskin.

Minerva Garcia, left, uses coupons to stretch the ministry’s food dollars. Madeline Hughes, right, manages the “store” that furnishes free items to Ruskin’s homeless and needy. The Center for Restoration Ministries supplies food, hygiene items, clothing, bedding and more to those in need. Now they are desparately searching for a new place to house their ministry in Ruskin.

But the third time he stopped at that same gas station, and he heard, “This is where I want a church,” he answered “Yes.”

Once he began to examine the area, he realized it wasn’t a place that needed just a church, but a place where people could get a holistic approach to life ­— body, mind and spirit.

“When those things aren’t aligned, you can’t have a good life,” he said in an interview April 25.

While the couple “just happened” to be looking around, some Realtors were having a sale where people were bidding on lots.

“We put in a bid and got this lot right then,” he said, speaking of where his lovely two-story home now stands.

So they built the house.

“What now?” he asked God in prayer. After all, he was still traveling back and forth — and still is — to the Tropicana plant in Bradenton.

He kept getting the word “church.”

So he started one in his home.

“We held services upstairs,” said Teresa. “We called it ‘The Upper Room.’”

Teresa started a home day care, the two began some programs and special projects and they soon outgrew their Upper Room.

Then, with a congregation of about 60, they moved into 310 1st Street, now the site of the homeless ministry. But they can’t stay.

Volunteers who help out at the center are, seated: Estella Matta; standing, from left, Barbara McLaughlin, Rena Altagracia, Georgina Lopez and Julia Hernandez.

Volunteers who help out at the center are, seated: Estella Matta; standing, from left, Barbara McLaughlin, Rena Altagracia, Georgina Lopez and Julia Hernandez.

Since they moved there, though, they’ve gathered a large number of helpers who are not from their ministry.

“People come by and see the need and just start pitching in,” Freddie said.

Some, however, like Madeline Hughes, were members of the Center for Restoration Ministries.

“I went to Madeline and asked her to head up a program for the homeless and neediest in the area,” Freddie said. “It was a big job.”

Fortunately, Freddie knew Hughes had a long history – 35 years, in fact — working with the Florida Department of Children and Families. As a food-stamp worker, she knew how to set up a feeding program.

“I intended to do training, but I ended up running the program myself,” Hughes said in a telephone interview April 24. “We call it the one-stop shop, even though everything is free, because it’s set up like a store. That’s for their dignity,” she said.

“When we first started, I noticed people out behind the back door,” Hughes said.  “I began to think, why go anywhere and search for people to serve? I wonder who’s right here?”

shoesSo Hughes began using the outside of the back door as a bulletin board. “‘Come inside for a hygiene packet. We have food, clean drinking water, blankets and pillows,’” she said.  “Then I started letting them hang out for a while and get to know us, and each other.”

For a while, volunteer Minerva Garcia used her couponing skills to stretch the food and other products so that the donated dollars bought three and four times — and sometimes more — than they normally would. But now, they can’t store much, knowing they will soon have to leave. And having no idea where they will end up.

Moving is essential, Garcia said.

So, many members of the community have jumped on board, Freddie said.

Like Kim Boyett, manager of Anne’s Estate Sales.

Greg stopped in to shop for some clothing and shoes.

Greg stopped in to shop for some clothing and shoes.

Pastors Freddie and Teresa Roberts at their home in Ruskin. The Center For Restoration Church is looking for a new place to serve the homeless and needy in Ruskin. Penny Fletcher photo.

Pastors Freddie and Teresa Roberts at their home in Ruskin. The Center For Restoration Church is looking for a new place to serve the homeless and needy in Ruskin. Penny Fletcher photo.

“I went into an estate sale looking for men’s socks,” said Hughes. “They were 30 cents a pair, and I was told they would be 15 cents the next day, so I went back. While I was gathering them up to purchase every pair they had, I was asked what I needed so many socks for. When I told Kim, she gave them to me. Later she said I could come after every sale was over and pick out things people needed.”

So Hughes started taking families (who had some sort of shelter) to pick up items for their “homes” — conveniences like a pot or skillet or maybe even a piece of furniture for someone who had a place but had landed on hard times.

“We helped with the last State of Florida homeless count,” said Freddie. The homeless are usually not correctly counted because they are afraid to come out of the shadows. “They fear losing their children, being accused of some sort of vagrancy crime, and many other things.

“But they trusted us,” Freddie said. “And that makes me feel really, really good.”

Hopefully, their first fundraising event will help them move forward with their many goals.

“Thanks to Diana Kohler from Coming Home Realty, we’ll be fundraising at the annual Pigs in the Parking Lot BBQ May 20,” Hughes said.

This event is sponsored by the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce and usually draws a crowd of several hundred for its great food and music.

Meanwhile, anyone wishing to contact Freddie is asked to go to the Thursday feeding in the Ruskin Post Office parking lot. He says this also gives him a chance to talk one-on-one with people who may want to take part.

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