When Ms. Dixie fell on hard times, she accepted a free meal from Love Your Neighbor, a spiritual ministry that provides support and hot meals every Monday afternoon at the Rising Sun Café on Main Street in Brooksville.
A year later and on the sixth anniversary of Love Your Neighbor's free dinner night, Ms. Dixie joined hands in prayer with about 20 other volunteers. Rising Sun owner, Lisa Callea, lead the moment with reflection on the gifts they were able to provide as an estimated 20 patrons waited outside the locked door.
Volunteers have gathered together each Monday to prep for the dinner, feeding anywhere from 20 to well over 100 at a time. Those like Ms. Dixie, who struggled a bit before getting back on her feet, find solace, comfort, social interaction and a feeling of healing, all of which are the nucleus of Love Your Neighbor.
Stan from Brooksville smiled as a piping hot plate of black beans, rice and chicken was placed in front of him. "I knew Ms. Lisa was cooking tonight," he said with a warm smile. "It's always good when Ms. Lisa cooks."
John Callea, co-founder and CEO of Love Your Neighbor, said the idea to offer a warm meal began six years ago, on July 15. "That first meal we had about 45 guests," he said. "We've peaked at 600!" They average about 100 meals each Monday.
The idea to hold a weekly soup kitchen was born when a server at the Rising Sun noticed a man, alone and appearing distraught, sitting outside the window of the café. She approached him to see if he needed help and offered him a bowl of soup and some bread. She then told him to come back every day at 3 p.m. and she would make sure he got a hot meal.
"That was the inspiration behind the soup kitchen," John Callea said. The man, Pete Bell, had walked to Florida from Texas after losing everything in a house fire, John Callea explained. His car broke down on his way out of town and he proceeded to make the journey on foot.
Through the kindness of the Rising Sun server, Bell's plight became the catalyst that propelled the ministry forward, offering free hot meals once a week, sponsored by Love Your Neighbor. Others stepped in, including Papa Joe's Italian Restaurant who has donated the food every second Monday of the month for six years. Walmart volunteers cover the fourth Monday of each month. And the Rising Sun Café fills in on the evenings when there is no sponsor. Panera Bread provides the breads and bakery goods each Monday and has done so since coming to Hernando County. And Chick-fil-A, a well-known supporter of community efforts, provides the chicken.
The location recently moved to the Café where it is served restaurant style, John Callea said, with volunteers who provide dynamic service, bringing bread, drinks and dessert to a collection of faces with their own heart-wrenching back-story. Many know each other and catch up as they enjoy their meal.
One Brooksville resident who has volunteered for more than a year brings a little something special to each table.
"I do tricks on them," she said, or she will share a whimsical joke. "I really love making people smile."
She has suffered her own trauma, burying two husbands and two sons. She gives to others because that is what she feels she is supposed to do. "It's God's will," she said.
"This started out as a way to feed the homeless," John Callea said. But now the weekly meals have become a socializing opportunity to anyone who wants to visit. "We even tell them to eat a plate and take a plate for later," John Callea said.
Love Your Neighbor depends entirely on donations and volunteers to run their soup kitchen, food pantry and Donation Station where those in need can get items for a small donation.
And they are always in need of volunteers, John Callea said.
Love Your Neighbor's resources begin with a plate of warm food and extend to all kinds of valuable options for those looking to turn their lives around.
For more information about support from Love Your Neighbor or to volunteer, contact John and Lisa Callea at (352) 848-0090.
Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame can be reached at email@example.com