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Ruskin food pantry homeless after church decides to sell property

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image Pastor William and Dora Cruz, both in their 80s, have helped found some of South County’s largest food banks over the last 30 years. Photo Kevin Brady

“We need to leave as soon as possible, but where do we go?” asked Pastor William Cruz.

A Ruskin food pantry is searching for a new home after a local church said it could no longer afford the property.

Opened in 2008 by Pastor William and Dora Cruz, The Lord’s Lighthouse Mission helps feed and clothe more than 300 people a week.

The property on East College Avenue is owned by St. John the Divine Episcopal Church, which opened a new church in Sun City Center in 2009. The cost of operating both campuses has become a financial strain on the church.

Finding a new home for the pantry is proving difficult.

“We need to leave as soon as possible, but where do we go?” asked Pastor William Cruz. “We have been turned down by several churches and businesses in the area already.” 

Serving mostly migrant workers and the area’s homeless population, the pantry is also finding that hungry seniors are increasingly knocking on its door.

“We have many who come in wheelchairs and walkers,” said Dora Cruz, who estimates that 30 percent of the mission’s clients are seniors.

St. John had planned to close the College Avenue church in 2008 and move into a larger facility, but because of difficulties with zoning issues at the time, the church opted to maintain both campuses.

Ed Brown, chief of staff at St. John the Divine, said: “We kept one contemporary service at 9 a.m. on Sundays there, and gave it five years to see if it was a viable plan. But at the end of the five years, we were disappointed in our expectations of growth there, and expenses were growing larger.” 

Even with a “two campuses, one church” philosophy, many parishioners felt disconnected, Brown said. “So both for financial and psychological reasons, we felt we had done our best and would have to end the experiment.”

The contemporary service was moved to the Sun City Center church in February, with the College Avenue campus serving only as a base for its popular outreach to the poor, the Lord’s Lighthouse. St. John soon decided it would be best to sell the property.

The property is not yet on the market but “we expect it will be soon,” Brown said.

The Lord’s Lighthouse will have as much time as it needs to move. “No clock is ticking on them,” Brown said. “We will provide whatever help that we can.” 

Hungry families begin lining up at the pantry 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. Most of the food is gone by 10 a.m.

“There is a great need here in Ruskin,” said Dora Cruz.

Cruz and her husband have been ministering to the poor since 1952, founding missions throughout the United States and Puerto Rico, including the Good Samaritan and Beth El missions in South County.

Retiring from Good Samaritan in 2008, some 25 years after they founded it, Dora and William thought they were ready to let others take the lead in helping the poor. But both, in their late 70s at the time, found they couldn’t stay away from mission work.

“We were ready for retirement, 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,” Dora said.

The pantry spends $800 a week on food, buying staples like rice and beans from Sam’s Club and fresh tortillas from Apollo Meats in Apollo Beach. 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 he’s never far away, said Carlos Rivera, the mission’s treasurer.

Julio, homeless since October, is a regular at the food bank. He says: “This is the only place I come to. I don’t know what I would do without it; go hungry, I guess.”

The Lord’s Lighthouse, 815 East College Ave., is always looking for donations of food, clothing and furniture. Financial donations are especially welcome because they 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.

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