William Cruz Jr. is glad to put food on an impoverished family’s table, but it’s their minds he’s really after.
On a crusade to break the cycle of poverty one person at a time, Cruz sees hunger as a symptom of deeper issues that can be solved through education.
“It’s all about giving people an opportunity to better themselves and give back to the community,” said Cruz, executive director of Wimauma’s Good Samaritan Mission.
Cruz is a member of Hillsborough County’s first family of charity, although “charity” is a word Cruz never uses when describing his work. His parents, Pastor William and Dora Cruz, founded the Good Samaritan, Beth-El and Lord’s Lighthouse missions.
“I have been helping out at Good Samaritan on and off since they started the Good Samaritan Mission 30 years ago,” said the younger Cruz.
A licensed family-and-marriage therapist with a degree from the University of South Florida, Cruz also is an ordained minister and might have seemed the logical choice to take over when his parents, both in their late 70s at the time, decided to retire from Good Samaritan in 2008.
Cruz wasn’t so sure.
“My parents wanted me to take over the family business, but my calling was to be a Christian therapist,” Cruz said.
When the mission’s board of directors asked if he would be willing to take over, Cruz said yes “but I have a different vision for the mission.”
That new vision started with an analysis of the community the mission served. Using national, state and county databases, Cruz’s study found a population struggling with domestic violence, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, teen pregnancy and gang violence.
“If we are really going to go to the core issue of what these people are going through and effectively help them to better their lives, then we need to address those issues,” Cruz said.
As a result, the mission began offering short classes for anyone who wanted to use the food bank. Classes run from 9 to 11:30 a.m. every Tuesday, and students earn a token for each class they attend.
Each token, in turn, earns students an empty bag that they can use at the mission’s food bank. Set up to resemble a small grocery store, the mission lets clients or students stroll the aisles to select the food they need. The more classes a student takes, the more tokens they earn and the more bags they can fill.
“Sometimes people save the tokens for another day when they really need the food, but we also have people who don’t need the food but just come for the classes and give their tokens to others who need it,” Cruz said.
The food bank is also open to those who don’t want to take the classes. They are, however, required to spend some time volunteering at the mission before they can use the food bank.
More than 300 people have graduated from the classes since they began in earnest last February. A typical week now sees 40 to 50 students taking classes at the mission.
Cruz thought it would take three to four years before the ideas seeded in the classes would start to sprout in the wider South County community.
“But within three months we started seeing people transitioning from students in the classes to volunteering at the mission or even teaching the classes themselves,” he said. “It’s about ushering people away from a culture of entitlement and into a culture of sharing and giving back to the community,” said Cruz, who also said he was inspired by Toxic Charity, a book by Robert Lupton that chronicled the shortcomings of traditional charity organizations.
Good Samaritan’s approach has earned support from across the bay area, with several missions inviting Cruz to share his philosophy in hope of starting similar programs.
“It’s the place God led me to,” said Anne Madden, a board member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority who has been volunteering at the mission for a year. “I really connect with their approach of giving people a rope and helping people learn to help themselves. There’s a place and a need for food pantries, but there’s also place for what they do at Good Samaritan.”
While other local missions provide free clothing and furniture, Cruz tries to avoid duplicating services.
“If other people are doing those things, we don’t need to do the same things,” he said. “Instead, we want to hit on some of the areas that other people are not hitting.”
With a $400,000 annual budget and only two full-time employees, Good Samaritan counts on grants from the Interfaith Council of Sun City Center, the Sun City Center Community Foundation and a number of local churches to keep the pantry’s shelves stocked.
For more information on the Good Samaritan Mission, call 813-634-7136, email email@example.com or visit www.gsmission.org.
The group also depends on community events like the upcoming “All Things Salsa” festival set for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., March 29, at the mission, 14920 Balm Wimauma Road, Wimauma. The celebration includes international cuisine, music, games and a salsa recipe contest where visitors vote for their favorite recipe. Entrance to the festival is free with a $5 donation for parking. Visit www.familysalsafestival.com for more information and directions.
Next week: The Beth-El Mission profiled and an update on the success of the drive that has generated donations of more than 1,000 pounds of food.
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.
Food banks benefiting from the Caring Castle include The Lord’s Lighthouse, Good Samaritan Mission, Beth-El Mission, St. Anne Church, 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.
Donations can be dropped off until Friday, Feb. 28.
The food drive has generated more than 1,000 pounds of food for six local food banks, which will pick up the donations Monday, March 3, between 9 a.m. and noon at JSA Medical.