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Riverview woman takes feeding the hungry personally

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image Anita de Biase has turned her garage, shed and outbuildings into a cooking and storage complex. Photo Penny Fletcher

“They’re all around us,” Anita said. “People just have to open their eyes and see.”

By PENNY FLETCHER

RIVERVIEW - Anita de Biase spends her whole week preparing for Sunday.

She knows people will be waiting for her at all her regular stops and she doesn’t ever want to disappoint them.

Anita, who will be 75 in November, doesn’t let up for a minute. In fact, she was back out in her kitchen cooking up a storm following open heart surgery in 2004 while she still had staples in her chest.

Feeding the hungry has become her way of life.

Anita spent her childhood in war-torn Germany before marrying her late husband Carl who was with the U.S. Air Force for 20 years. The two moved around the world during his career, finally retiring in Riverview in 1979 after living a long time in Iran.

When Carl died in 2002 Anita wondered what she would do with the rest of her life. Her two sons and grandsons live in Ohio and she found herself alone.

“Then it came to me,” she said. “I believe I heard God tell me to feed his sheep. Of course, that could have meant the Bible or anything. But when I thought about it, I knew it meant feed. So I started cooking, and one by one, God sent me volunteers. People think that one person can’t make a difference, but each one can. And helping others does as much for the one who’s helping as it does for the one who receives.”

Anita said it lifted her out of her depression.

A tie-in that had already occurred suddenly made sense to her.

When her husband was sick, a nurse from Brandon came regularly to their house and talked about the T.H.O.R. N. ministry that fed homeless people.

Anita connected the conversations she’d had with the nurse with the message she felt she had received and joined forces with Kristin Taylor, a singer from Brandon, who had begun T.H.O.R.N. Ministries after doing a concert in Samoa and seeing the tragedy of many poor, homeless people who had no food or medical care.

Kristin’s website, www.kristintaylor.com, explains the beginning and concepts of  T.H.O.R.N. which was started after she came back from Samoa in 1997 and discovered  that there were 7,000 homeless living in Hillsborough County.

T.H.O.R.N., or Thankfully Helping Others Real Needs, uses the symbol of the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head as its logo.

Anita gives it everything she has. Besides her time, with the help of volunteers, she has moved her great quantities of German cooking from her home’s kitchen to three connected renovated outbuildings where a crew of helpers come and go, bringing food, and help prepare it for delivery to hungry and homeless people most of whom live on the street, behind buildings, in the woods and bushes and under bridges.

“They’re all around us,” Anita said. “People just have to open their eyes and see.”

T.H.O.R.N. is a spiritually-inspired outreach to both the homeless of Tampa Bay and Samoa, Kristin said. She did the paperwork to make it a tax-deductible 501-c-3 organization so gifts would be tax deductible for donors.

Kristin said she has never seen anyone as dedicated as Anita and says the two have forged a bond like a mother and daughter.

“It is like I found a mother,” Kristin (who has 12 children, eight of which are adopted)  said. “She is a wonderful, kind person and does this with a giving heart.”

The poverty of some they feed is worse than what Kristin has seen in Haiti and Jamaica. Stories of people living under bridges and behind bushes and in the woods all over the county fill the T.H.O.R.N. website.

“The best way to get out of depression is by helping others,” Anita said. “There are so many lonely people who start doing this and realize it is helping them as much – maybe more- than it helps those we feed.”

Anita especially likes to cook old family recipes from her childhood in Germany. On any given Sunday they feed from 250 to 400 people in three locations in Tampa. And those who get a hot meal also get a bag lunch to take for another day.

All T.H.O.R.N.’s storage and food preparation takes place at Anita’s where volunteers have donated stoves, freezers, refrigerators and all kinds of cooking equipment.
It is no small operation.

Fridays the group she calls her “lunch bunch” comes over and packs brown-bag lunches to send with each person who receives a hot plate. Some prep work is also done for the huge weekly meal.

By Saturday all six of the economy-size slow cookers are full, eight burners on two side-by-side stoves are boiling and sautéing and frying and volunteers are cutting, chopping and cooking fresh vegetables.

Unlike so many shelter meals that are regulated by the government, the food cooked at Anita’s is home-style. She tries to plan meals that she would serve her own family and encourages others who can’t take part on site to cook at home and drop dishes off. Casseroles, cakes or anything they make at home is fine.

“If they call ahead in the week we can schedule volunteers,” said Kristin. “Children can do (court-ordered) community service hours or help out to get volunteer hours to earn scholarships.”

A lot of the food that’s cooked comes from the food pantry at Resurrection Catholic Church in Riverview which is brought in by many churches in the Gibsonton-Riverview area. Other things are brought directly to Anita’s house by individuals and groups.

Fresh vegetables and fruits and meat are always needed because these are things government feeding programs don’t always provide. Perishable foods are distributed right away.

Besides food to cook, the group always needs lunch bags, Ziploc bags, sandwich bags, paper towels, paper plates, cups, plastic silverware and powdered drink mix.

Some Sundays they go through 40 gallons of drinks between volunteers and recipients.

Salads are also a favorite as many soup kitchens serve only soups, stews and bread.

A lot of Anita’s week is spent picking out foods, shopping, and prepping.

Late on Saturdays, volunteers arrive to pack the mobile trailer for Sunday’s feedings at three Tampa locations.

Men from the First Methodist Church in Brandon take turns lifting heavy items and pulling the large donated mobile kitchen with a truck.

“Sometimes when someone takes a plate of food, they say it is the first time they have eaten in two or three days,” Anita said. “People think one person can’t be a help but each person can make a difference.”

Anita said she hopes many people will call and volunteer after reading about the ministry even if it is just to make a casserole or cake.

“Everyone can do something and every single little thing helps,” she said.

There are several things people can do besides cook and distribute food because food isn’t the only thing the truck has for people when it reaches its destinations. Anita’s converted shed is filled with hygiene items, toothpaste and toothbrushes, soap, deodorant and shampoo, and all sorts of clothing.

“We especially need men’s clothing,” Anita said. “Because there are far more men on the streets than women and children.”

One of the things they can’t get enough of is socks. Some weeks they could use more than 50 pairs.

“We call it Thornmart, like a Wal-Mart on Wheels,” Kristin joked. “Some weeks we have towels and other things as well as clothes, depending on donations.”
Kristin calls it a ministry. Anita calls it her way of life.

Anyone who wants to donate food, money, or help in any way may call Anita at (813) 677-8058.

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