TAMPA — For the past 24 years, tens of thousands of poor families have turned to Metropolitan Ministries for their Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners and for toys for their children.

The nonprofit’s annual holiday tent, roughly the size of a football field, has become one of Tampa’s most visible works of charity.

But in a year where the coronavirus has ravaged the economy, the 2020 holiday season could be the biggest challenge the nonprofit has ever faced, said chief executive officer Tim Marks.

The nonprofit is anticipating that the pandemic will swell the number of families reaching out for help to more than 40,000, way more than the 29,000 it served last year.

And it will have to meet the extra need at a time when contributions from food and toy drives are down more than 50 percent. Much of that is because companies that typically organize food banks have not done so this year as their employees are working from home.

“It really has hit some of our families very, very hard. (There’s) lost wages, lost income and tremendous challenges,” said Marks. “We can’t imagine a family not coming together and not having Thanksgiving dinner. I can’t imagine a family not having toys for their kids.”

The group estimates that it will need 100 million pounds of food — equivalent to about 60 semi-truck loads — and 100,000 toys this year. It will begin accepting donations at the holiday tent at 2609 N Rome Ave. and at other sites on Monday.

The exterior of the Metropolitan Ministries 36,500-square-foot holiday tent on North Rome Avenue, Tampa. This year, there will be no sit-down Thanksgiving or Christmas meals because of the coronavirus. But up to 40,000 families are expected to take advantage of a drive-through meal and Christmas toy program. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The coronavirus will mean a vastly different experience for families who visit the tent.

In keeping with coronavirus protocols recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the operation will be mostly drive-through for families dropping off food and toys and for those receiving donations.

There will be no sit-down dinners in the tent. Instead, volunteers will hand out Thanksgiving and Christmas grab-and-go meals. All staffers, volunteers and guests will be required to wear facemasks. Staffers and volunteers who are handling food and toys will be gloved, the group said.

People entering the tent will have their temperatures checked.

Families seeking help over the holidays can register online beginning Wednesday to get an appointment time. Those with children can indicate the number, age and gender of their children to receive “Bags of Joy,” with two toys for each child.

The economic fallout from the pandemic has already stretched Metropolitan Ministries’ resources to the breaking point. Since March, the group has given out 54,000 food boxes and assisted more than 2,000 families with rent and utility payments. The nonprofit has expanded its outreach to several counties, including Polk and Hernando.

Related: Tampa nonprofit can’t meet ‘staggering’ demand for help with rent

The nonprofit is partnering with Thaddeus Bullard, aka World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Titus O’Neil, who heads the Bullard Family Foundation. Bullard said Tuesday his support of the program stems from growing up in a family that struggled to make ends meet. In the wake of the pandemic, it’s not just low-income families that need help, he said.

“COVID has affected people from all walks of life, all different backgrounds,” Bullard said. “I’ve had friends who have shut down restaurants, and small businesses have never opened again.”

Want to help?

Metropolitan Ministries needs volunteers and donations of food items and toys for its annual holiday tent. Beginning Monday, donations can be dropped off at:

  • 2609 N Rome Ave., Tampa.
  • Metropolitan Ministries’ Pasco campus, 3214 U.S. Hwy. 19 N in Holiday.
  • Restored Hope, 13703 17th St., Dade City.

For more information: www.metromin.org/holiday-central/overview/

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