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The circle of life

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Whole families occupy small cottages like this in many areas of South County. “You don’t recognize the struggling low-wage families as poor until you see where and how they’re living,” said Rich Ricca with the St. Vincent de Paul Society at St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin. “Sometimes just a few dollars will help pay an electric bill, or a doctor’s visit, and get them through a rough time.”
RUSKIN — What can a couch, a broken down car, a newly-retired woman from up North, and a family of five with both parents out-of-work have in common?

They’re all part of the circle of life.

I know, I was confused too, when Rich Ricca first explained the “circle” concept to me. It had nothing to do with the song “Circle of Life” from the animated movie Lion King I remembered from about 10 years ago.

Rich is the director of store operations for the Thrift Store that supplies money to help the needy who are screened by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Anne Catholic Church in Ruskin.

Every week, he and others who make up the team that decides how much assistance they can provide, go through the immediate needs with which they’ve been presented and compare them to the resources they have on hand, some of which come from donations, but most from sales at the Thrift Store.

“It’s a circle,” Rich said. “A circle of life.”


Trailer courts like this are not few and far between in South County. You just have to know where to look for them.
And then, he explained the “circle concept” to me this way: “Let’s say you’re up in the sky looking down and you want to trace the path of Mrs. Smith’s couch. It’s been donated (to the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store) and we’ve checked to see what its worth and set a price on it. Around that same time, a woman comes down for the winter and wants to fix up her apartment but doesn’t live here year round so she doesn’t want to spend a whole lot. She comes in to the Thrift Store and buys Mrs. Smith’s couch and the money she spends becomes part of the store’s funds that spin off to the three local Catholic churches that have St. Vincent de Paul societies; St. Anne, St. Stephen and Prince of Peace.”

Every week a group meets and decides who- and how much - they can assist based on what monies have been taken in. Of course, each applicant is screened. They can’t just walk in and get a check. But many who fall through the cracks of county, state and federal aid programs are helped.  


One man interviewed told me he paid $30 a night two nights a week at a local motel so he could take a shower because he lives in the woods.
“This is a ministry to us. We get a lot of volunteer help, but there are also business expenses like paying people to pick up the furniture. Not everybody can bring their items into the store. We need people who can lift and move the things that are donated and drive the big truck,” Rick said.

“So we’re in this meeting, listening to the needs of the people who have come to us for help. For example, just this week we had a request for help with a funeral. Someone else needed their electric bill paid because they live on the edge and had had a sudden emergency medical expense that threw their whole budget out of whack. There was a family that had lost their auto insurance, without which they couldn’t drive, and the woman had a job and the man was looking for work. How could they expect to do that without using their car? Another had gotten behind on her rent- a single mother with kids- and we were able to get the landlord to promise not to evict her if we paid half of what was due which enabled her to try and catch up. It only gave her two extra weeks, but two weeks with a roof over your head is a lot better than two weeks without one. We knew the $350 we paid would buy her some time.”

But let’s get back to the couch.

The last request on last week’s list was from a family that had arrived with their children on the promise of a job which – after arrival, no longer existed. The mother, however, had found work and gotten a place to live, but when someone from the church went to check on her, the trailer was completely bare. No dining table, no chairs, no beds and no couch.

These, Rich explained, were the basic items she needed.


Travel trailers house entire families year-round. On the street where this was photographed, at least 10 of them were nearly hidden beneath the trees.
So there’s Mrs. Smith’s couch out on the floor for sale. Several people have asked why they can’t drop the price. “We’re always being asked, ‘isn’t this a thrift store?’ Why can’t you drop the price some more,’ but the people who ask us that can’t see the big picture. They can’t see what I call ‘the circle.’ If I drop the price, I don’t have money for the person who needs a tooth pulled or a prescription picked up. And in this case, I wouldn’t have had a couch for this woman and her kids,” Rich explained.

Looking at the big picture, I could see the circle. The donated couch; the pickup and delivery men who had to be paid; the couch set on the floor for sale; the people in need coming to the doors of churches; church people meeting to decide who they were able to help; the church member entering the completely bare trailer and interviewing the family living there; and finally, the delivery of the couch, along with the other basic furniture that was needed right away.

Sure, there are county programs that offer assistance, but there are so many needy now in the bad economy, people must often wait weeks. The churches and charity organizations are flooded. I know this is true because I have talked to many of them from Good Samaritan Mission in Balm to the Lord’s Lighthouse in Ruskin to the DayStar Faith Center in Gibsonton.

A lot of people who used to donate are now having trouble making their own ends meet.

“The churches have become the court of last resort,” Rich said. “A small amount of money can change the whole course of a family’s life. If a person doesn’t have electricity, the food in their refrigerator spoils and they can’t buy more so their kids go hungry. If they don’t get an infected tooth pulled, they could end up seriously ill in the hospital. The same if they can’t pick up a prescription, maybe just a $20 or $30 one, but they don’t have it and do without, putting their life in danger.”

Rich drew me a mental picture of a family living in a house without water.


One man interviewed told me he paid $30 a night two nights a week at a local motel so he could take a shower because he lives in the woods.
It was easy for me to imagine, having lived in rural Tennessee and Kentucky, because I have seen many houses without running water inside. But usually, those places are set up for it. They know they will have to draw water at a well or drive to town on a regular basis to buy bottled water and use a Laundromat. Some even plan to rent a motel room weekly so everyone in the family can bathe.

But if they’re living in a mobile home or apartment here in South County, and their water is suddenly turned off and they have no money, dishes lie dirty in the kitchen. Clothes pile up unwashed. They’re in danger of serious skin infections like scabies from not washing themselves. And drinking water? What family of four or five without income to pay a water bill could possibly afford the price of bottled water to fulfill the amount required for each person in a 24-hour period?

“There’s more than a physical effect from these things,” Rich said. “There’s a long-lasting psychological effect too. And people don’t realize how many people there are living right here in our area that are right on the edge.”

These people have jobs that pay minimum wage or slightly more; and often pay $100 to $150 a week of their $250 weekly checks just for a roof over their heads.

I set out to find as many of them as I could in one afternoon and drove all over Ruskin, Gibsonton and Wimauma. Oh, there are working poor in just about all the areas of South County, not just those three, but I had to choose places where I knew I could get the fastest input in the least amount of time.

Because I’ve been writing about this area for nearly 25 years, just about everybody I stopped to talk to opened up, although I promised not to take their photograph or use their name.

Feb. 4 I met a man who heads a family of four living a two-room cottage using a hot plate as his only means for cooking. I met another man who lives in one side of a single-wide mobile home that has been converted into two separate apartments. And a third man who was renting a room at a local motel; a thing he says he does periodically because he’s homeless and needs to take a bath.

The photographs that accompany this story explain these things better than my words can attempt to do.  

Anyone who wants to become part of this circle can contact the Thrift Store at (813) 645-5255, or go there in person to volunteer, shop or just check it out. It’s located at 1311 Third St. N.E. in Ruskin (turn east off U.S. 41 on 11th Avenue N.E. just south of St. Anne Catholic Church; turn left at the stop sign and proceed one block; just north of the Kennco building.) 

Meanwhile, anyone who thinks they may qualify for assistance may contact one of the three participating South County churches area mentioned earlier in this story.


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