Armed with turkey sandwiches, pumpkin pie and thanksgiving prayers, about 30 volunteers from Kay's Ministry headed to downtown Tampa on Thanksgiving Day to provide support and sustenance to residents who might otherwise go hungry on the holiday.
The 3-year-old ministry of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico, led by FishHawk Ranch resident Charlie McGowan, is committed to providing food for the soul as well as the body to Tampa's homeless population. Volunteers sacrifice time each Sunday, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day to feed and pray for those in need.
For McGowan, it's a way of showing gratitude for all the blessings in his life.
"It's not what we have that's important," he said. "It's what we give. Everyone is called by Jesus to do something, to give of themselves. And this is what I do."
Father of three, Mark Wegner, brought along two of his children, Nathan and Joey. He and the boys have been helping McGowan feed the homeless for about two years.
"We just love doing this," said Wegner. "It's a great lesson for my kids to learn appreciation for what they have and to understand that these are all God's children. Every night we pray for the homeless."
Nathan Wegner, an eighth-grader at Nativity Catholic School, has taken the lesson one step further. He makes braided bracelets that he sells for $5 each and then donates the money to Kay's Ministry.
"We're never sure how many homeless people will show up," said McGowan, who travels to four locations to feed the homeless. "Some days, there's only 30. Other days we have 150 people. No matter how many people show up, they all receive a good meal and the knowledge that someone cares about them."
In addition to providing food, McGowan gives out Bibles, rosaries and religious medals, offering the homeless a Bible reading and inspirational message.
"We're not here to force anyone to become Christians," said McGowan. "We're just here to show love. And, if our message hits home, that's great."
That was the case for Tanya, a homeless woman who grew up in a nonreligious environment.
After listening to McGowan's message, she recently asked him to baptize her.
"It was just something I felt I had to do," said Tanya. "I realized I needed Christ in my life."
McGowan said many of the homeless he's ministered to have reached the same conclusion.
"These people didn't start out to become drug or alcohol addicts. They didn't ask to have AIDS or mental issues," he said. "Each of these people have a story to tell but no one to listen. They need encouragement and hope as well as food."
McGowan is always looking for volunteers as well as donations of backpacks, socks, shoes, underwear and other items for the homeless.
Anyone wishing to help can contact him at 813-767-2025 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.