Ruskin food pantry, mission a labor of love for Cruz family
The fourth in a series of articles on South County food banks benefiting from the “Have A Heart Caring Castle” community food drive co-sponsored by JSA Medical Group and The Observer News, The SCC Observer and The Current. Next week, we profile Wimauma’s Good Samaritan Mission
By Kevin Brady
It’s the children who break Sharon Van Loan’s heart.
Hungry and sometimes too embarrassed to go to school because they have no shoes or clean clothes, the children often have little hope other than The Lord’s Lighthouse Mission.
“The children are the ones that really tug at my heart,” said Van Loan, a founding member of the Lord’s Lighthouse board.
“They will not go to school if they don’t have shoes; they feel humiliated. Whatever the situation, it’s not their fault.”
The mission served around 50 families when it was opened in 2008 by Pastor William and Dora Cruz. Today the pantry provides food for 275 to 350 families a week, most of them farm workers but an increasing amount are seniors, said Dora.
“We have many who come in wheelchairs and walkers,” said Dora, who estimates that 30 percent of the mission’s clients are seniors.
The complexion of those seeking help also has changed since 2008.
“When we started, it was mostly Mexican families, but today we have white, black, Hispanic and even Chinese,” said Carlos Rivera, the mission’s treasurer.
Cruz and her husband have been ministering to the poor since 1952, when they married and added a vow to help the poor as part of their pledge to each other.
“When I met her, I knew this was the person that would be loyal and be with me all the way,” said William Cruz.
Pastor William and Dora went on to establish missions throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, including the Good Samaritan and Beth El missions in South County. It’s a family affair for the Cruz family — all six of their children are involved in helping with mission work. Their son, William Jr., runs Wimauma’s Good Samaritan Mission.
Retiring from Good Samaritan in 2008, 25 years after they founded it, Dora and William thought they were ready to let others take the lead in helping the poor. But although they are both in their late 70s, they find they can’t stay away from mission work.
“We were ready for retirement,” Dora said. “But after a few months we decided we were still strong and we still had the call from God to help the poor. So we contacted St. John the Divine Church, and they opened their doors for us.”
So began The Lord’s Lighthouse Mission.
Hungry families begin lining up at the pantry on East College Avenue before 7 a.m. on Tuesday mornings, food distribution day. Each family receives a 10-pound bag of food, including beans, rice and tortillas and anything else that might have been donated that week.
“There is a great need here in Ruskin,” Dora said. “If not for donations we would have very little on the shelves.”
The pantry spends $800 a week on food, buying staples like rice and beans from Sam’s Club and fresh tortillas from Apollo Meats. Grants from the Community Foundation of Sun City Center ($20,000 last year) and the Interfaith Council ($15,000 in 2012), free food from five area 7-11 stores, and individual donations help keep the wolf from the pantry’s door, but the wolf is never far away, said Carlos Rivera, the mission’s treasurer.
“Most weeks, the food is all gone by 10 a.m.” Rivera said.
The pantry also provides a free meal to the homeless and hungry after the 11 a.m. Sunday service at St. John’s on College Avenue. Homeless for eight months, William (not related to the Cruzes) is among some 100 people who turn up for the Sunday meal.
“It helps tide me over,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do if it was not here. Thank God they are.”
Julio, homeless since October, is another regular at the Sunday food bank. “This is the only place I come to,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do without it; go hungry, I guess.”
The mission’s Access program also helps clients apply for federal programs like food stamps, Medicare and Social Security. “Some of the people who come in don’t even know they are eligible for help,” said Van Loan. “But they have people there that are licensed who can help with the applications.”
The mission’s clothing and furniture store also help, especially in cold weather.
“The places that a lot of the people live are often not very warm or well-insulated,” Van Loan said. “The need is just so great. I think everyone has a responsibility to take care of others. Some of us have so much, while others have so little, but it is very rewarding to be part of it.”
Now 82, Dora Cruz shows no sign of slowing down. Her husband is 85.
“Dora is an amazing person with prayer, but she also doesn’t hesitate to call people when they don’t have enough food,” Van Loan said.
The Lord’s Lighthouse, 815 East College Ave., is always looking for donations of food, clothing and furniture. Financial donations are especially welcome because these can be leveraged to buy food by the pound from local suppliers. For more information, call (813) 641-7100 or (813) 321-9723 or visit the group’s website, www.lordslighthouse.org.
Where to donate to ‘Caring Castle’
Canned food and nonperishable foodstuffs can be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., through Feb. 28, at the JSA Medical Group Activity Center, 787 Cortaro Drive, Sun City Center, behind Burger King on State Road 674.
Other local food banks benefiting from the Caring Castle include St. Anne Church, Good Samaritan Mission, Beth-El Mission, Our Lady of Guadalupe and Life Church.
Organizers plan to build a castle with donations, using canned goods and other nonperishable foodstuffs as bricks. The castle will be redesigned and rebuilt weekly as donations roll in.