What's Big and Red and Gives Christmas Cheer?

If you spend any amount of time going north on Florida Avenue in Tampa for the last three months of the year, you know it's not Santa, but the ginormous Metropolitan Ministries holiday center tent. Since I've never been inside, I decided to see it for myself. Community relations manager Ana Mendez was my guide.

On Friday, December 11th, the holiday center opens for business. Pre-registered families already qualified for services will get to "shop" for two toys per child and groceries from the huge Metro Market, a makeshift grocery store located in the tent. With the help of dedicated volunteers, 1000 families will enter the tent daily until Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, more volunteers (who began signing up for these coveted spots back in September) will feed Christmas dinner to those who would otherwise have gone without.

Ana Mendez with volunteer Kit Carson

"We've got serving down to a science. We feed 100 families every 15 minutes."

In addition to the folks who visit the holiday center for assistance, Metro Ministries provides 47 community partners toys and holiday food. These days, there is always a need for food donations, and the most urgent need for toys is for teenaged boys and girls.
MP3 players, makeup, or "anything you'd buy for yourself or a friend," is what Ana tells youth interested in holding gift drives for their less fortunate peers.

"This is Barbie central," Ana said when we entered the part of the tent designated as a toy store. The shelves were labeled for age and gender. Toys overflowed the girls and boys pre-teen and infant sections, but were barren when it came to the 12-17 year olds.

Last year 26,000 people in Tampa Bay were served by Metropolitan Ministries and their partners.
This year, the number is projected to be 29,000. The need is great, but the volunteer requests keep coming in, too. And while Christmas Day is pretty much booked up (there may still be a need for traffic managers to guide vehicles and families in and out of the tent), the need continues year round.

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