Kay's Ministry Feeds the Body and Soul

A FishHawk Ranch resident evangelizes to Tampa's homeless population.

Each one has a story of desperation and despair.

And FishHawk Ranch resident Charlie McGowan is always willing to listen to the stories and offer a word of encouragement and hope.

McGowan feels he's been called by God to tend to Tampa's growing homeless population, to not only provide sustenance for their bodies but, more importantly, for their souls.

Named for McGowan's late mother who instilled in him the desire to help others less fortunate than himself, Kay's Ministry was established as a one-man show two years ago when McGowan decided to visit Tampa's homeless population with a carload of bologna sandwiches and a Bible.

A year ago, with a nod from St. Stephen Catholic Church pastor, the Rev. William Swengros, McGowan's ministry became a church ministry, and the one-man expanded to include other members of the church at 5049 Bell Shoals Road, Valrico.

But McGowan's mission didn't change.

"What separates us from other homeless ministries is that our whole purpose is to bring the Word of God to these people," said McGowan. "It's a ministry for Christ. We're here to save souls."

While it's the promise of free food, clothing and shoes that may attract the homeless to McGowan's packed SUV each Sunday, they know they must hear a Gospel reading and a spiritual message from McGowan before the sandwiches and drinks are handed out.

The 80 or more homeless residents McGowan and his volunteers see each Sunday at three stops are perfectly willing to wait and listen while McGowan evangelizes. And sometimes, what he has to say makes an impact on someone.

"That's a good day when we have someone accept Christ into their life," said McGowan.

So far, he said, 51 homeless residents have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior. Many more have taken the Bibles, rosaries and religious medals McGowan regularly distributes.

Clint, a homeless man who declined to give his last name, said he's not Catholic but has carried the finger rosary McGowan gave him for two years.

"It's brought me a lot of comfort," said Clint, proudly displaying the metal ring.

Izzie, six months pregnant and homeless, began to cry when McGowan handed her a medal bearing the likeness of Mary with her infant son.

"I used to be Catholic," she said. "This means so much to me. Maybe it will protect my baby."

Mary Grace Espositi is among the faithful who eagerly listen to McGowan's message each Sunday. Originally from Queens, N.Y., she moved to Tampa in 1981 and makes her home near Sacred Heart Church in Tampa, which she attends every morning. She said, due to epilepsy and a mental disability, she is unable to hold a job.

“You folks do good work giving what you do to both the poor and homeless out here," Espositi told McGowan. "You know, I think you're a lot like St Francis. He gave to the poor people, also. You people have a great effect on me.”

Reuben Persaud of Bloomingdale, a volunteer with Kay's Ministry for six months, said McGowan's gift is his ability to get the homeless to open up to him.

"He's a great listener," said Persaud. "The homeless really admire and respect him."

McGowan shrugs off the compliment.

"I'm just an average schmuck from Boston," he said. "If I can help just one person turn to God, I feel like I've accomplished my mission."

New volunteers are surprised at how polite and grateful the homeless are. They patiently wait their turn to receive a sandwich or doughnut and never take more than they need, said McGowan. If they see someone who needs the item more, they'll give it to the other homeless person.

"We've never had any incidents of violence or other problems," said McGowan. "These are basically good people who have fallen on hard times due to mental illness, drugs, alcohol or job loss."

Most of the funds for McGowan's mission come out of his own pocket, although he does receive some donations of money, clothing and food from St. Stephen parishioners.

He scours the Internet for deals on cases of socks, belts, shoes, hats, sunglasses and underwear, and always carries a supply in his SUV for any homeless person in need.

Another volunteer, Jim Clarke, purchases reading glasses for the homeless, another great need.

"People usually donate the medals and chains we hand out," said McGowan. And he always has a supply of Bibles on hand for any homeless person who requests one.

"We don't get enough donations to do everything we want to do. We always worry if we're going to have enough food and clothing to go around," said McGowan. "But somehow it always works out.

McGowan is always looking for volunteers.

"The nice thing about this ministry is you don't have to commit to every Sunday. Just come out and help when you can," he said. "Everyone who comes out with us always comments that it's such a great experience. What they get out of it is incredible."

There are other ways to volunteer as well, said McGowan.

"Some people can't come out with us but make us sandwiches to take to the homeless. We're always grateful for that help."

McGowan is always in need of donations of clothing, shoes, socks, underwear, soap, shampoo, sunglasses, ball caps and other items for the homeless.

To learn more about volunteering for Kay's Ministry or to donate items, contact McGowan at 813-767-2025 or email kaysministry@ststephencatholic.org.








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