NEW PORT RICHEY — For the past several years, about the time Al Roker was overseeing the ribbon-cutting to start the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a ritual no less significant, despite its obscurity, was playing out in Port Richey.
There in a hard-to-find parking lot off U.S. 19 in Port Richey, the men of the Father Felix Ullrich Knights of Columbus and St. James the Apostle Catholic Church — a hardy few of them, anyway — assembled, took roll (there always were late, undisclosed absences) and piled shoulder-to-shoulder into a half-dozen cars or so bound for Metropolitan Ministries’ base of operations near downtown Tampa.
And, for the past several years, having completed their duties as volunteers for the annual Thanksgiving feast for the homeless, this hardy few, this band of brothers, would caravan home about the same time big box retailers were rolling out their first door-buster Black Friday sales.
“Long day,” says Cliff Gill who, besides being a shrewd judge of diurnal events, turns out also to be a man of Big Ideas.
One result of a recent Gill brainstorm is this Thanksgiving, one car — specifically Gill’s 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis — will be sufficient to carry out the Knights’ mission of bringing comfort, dignity and satisfied bellies to the less fortunate. Because this Thanksgiving, they’re making it local.
Know this before we go further: Cliff Gill, county employee and Tampa Tribune sports correspondent, does not do irony. The one man in Pasco County who understands, if any man does, the importance of being earnest, Gill gives 24-karat sincerity, and he expects no less in return. There is honor in that as rare as it is special.
Never mind, then, if all goes well for the Ullrich Knights’ inaugural Feed the Homeless Thanksgiving it still will be hours before sunset and volunteers’ short commutes will get them home in time for the middle game of the NFL’s Turkey Day triple-header. You must resist to the point of personal injury the temptation to trot out this line: “So, really, Cliff, this is all about you.”
It is not, of course, even remotely.
What it is about is realizing it isn’t necessary to commute 90 minutes each way to commit corporal works of mercy. The need ever stirring in the core of Tampa is, if homeless counts are remotely accurate, no less abundant in west Pasco. Gill and his core group of organizers, including County Commissioner Pat Mulieri and Volunteer Way chief Lester Cypher, have both consulted Coalition for the Homeless of Pasco President Dan Campbell and know from experience what lurks inside the west-side woodlands.
“Like at the intersection of Massachusetts [Avenue] and Ridge Road,” Gill says. “They say there may be fifty-five hundred homeless back there. I pass through there every day. To me, I see trees. To them, it’s home.”
Come Thanksgiving Day, fortified with two-dozen deep-dish trays filled with turkey, stuffing, potatoes and a so-far unannounced vegetable — thanks to Metropolitan Ministries and Gill’s Grand Marquis — the Knights and their associates will be well-supplied to fill 300 bellies, minimum. More, maybe, if servers are careful with their helpings.
Doors to the Knights of Columbus Hall (5850 Knights of Columbus Dr., on the east side of U.S. 19 south of Ridge Road) open at 11 a.m., and they’ll serve until 3 p.m., or until the food runs out, whichever comes first.
Organizers decided against live entertainment, or speechifying. “Politicians called, asking if they could say a few words,” says Gill who, despite being active in grass-roots electioneering himself adds flatly, “We’re not going to politicize this in any way.”
On this Sunday before the event, then, Gill is content they have accommodated every contingency except how many volunteers will go AWOL. Well, that and maybe a couple of cases of cranberries. Gill won’t plead for garnishments, but he is eager for reinforcements.
“Even if you can come for just a few hours, or even an hour,” he says, “that would be great.”
It would also be a tribute to Thanksgiving’s energizing spirit more satisfying than any second helping. If this sounds like you, call the man: (727) 860-4903.