With hands stuffed in her jacket pockets, Mary Mauricio stood in the parking lot of a defunct Gainesville restaurant, watching the city’s homeless and hungry take clothing, blankets and food.
She was thinking about Sunday’s forecast for freezing weather and the people who live under bridges and between buildings in her hometown. She was looking at bloated winter clouds, so thick they smothered the noontime sun. She was shaking her head, saying “We do what we can. We always do what we can, because when you love God, you love people. And, when you serve God, you serve people.”
Mauricio and husband Ruben’s outreach L.A.M.P (Latin American Missionary Program) Ministries was one of two faith-based, nonprofit organizations offering an early Thanksgiving meal, clothing, blankets and a little encouragement Saturday.
Volunteers with L.A.M.P. held up signs that read “free food” on the side of Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville as hundreds lined up for a hot meal and searched through stacks of clothing. Among them was Rachel Howard who stood in line, accepting a styrofoam container of food. She tucked it beneath her arm and sifted through a stack of shirts.
A domestic violence survivor, Howard also has in the past suffered from depression.
“Now, I’m getting strong again,” she said. “My life hasn’t always been easy, but it’s getting better, and it’s thanks to people like (those at L.A.M.P. Ministries). People help me along the way, and I try to pass it on when I can. I tell other people who I see on the street, ‘it’s going to be OK. There’s better days coming.’”
Carol Ann and Dwayne McFarland also got assistance Saturday from L.A.M.P. Ministries. The couple has had a difficult year, to say the least. Dwayne lost his job two months back after an emergency bout of appendicitis put him out of work. Carol Ann is disabled.
“We’re on food stamps, but our food stamps ran out a week ago,” Carol Ann said. “We almost lost our home when he lost his job.”
Dwayne said he recently got a new job painting machine parts, and the couple is in the process of getting their finances back in order. The help they’ve received in the interim has been “a blessing,” he said.
“It says a lot about Gainesville,” Dwayne said. “These are good folks. People helping people. It’s a big help.”
Just across town, at Atlanta Street Apartments, others were also getting help from Under the Bridge Ministries, who held a Thanksgiving dinner for anybody who wanted a hot meal and fellowship.
Bo Hairston, a board member with Under the Bridge Ministries, said the gathering was “a chance for people to come and give. We eat every day, and some of these people you see here, they eat once a week. We can all do something to help, but only if we want to.”
Added Hairston: “These people, they need help. They need somebody to love on them. They need to have a conversation with somebody, and that’s why we have to come together as a community and make a difference.”
Joey and Angela Nicholson used their musical talents to reach out to the crowd outside Atlanta Street Apartments.
“It’s not just a handout for the people here,” Joey said. “They’re also getting the love of Christ through a song, a piece of chicken, clothes, a prayer, a smile or a hug ... whatever it takes.”
Under the Bridge Ministries CEO Heather Meyer said it’s “heartbreaking” knowing there will be many sleeping outdoors in Hall County as forecasted temperatures dip toward freezing overnight.
“That’s why we try to gather as many tents, blankets and warm clothes as we can and get them in their hands and encourage them to take shelter,” Meyer said. “We encourage them to take shelter and point them in the right direction. But, if you refuse to go to a shelter, at least we’ll try to give you a blanket to keep warm.”
Over on Jesse Jewell Parkway, where L.A.M.P. volunteers continued to do their part Saturday afternoon, volunteer Alina Carbonell handed out hot plates of food.
“I’m honored to be able to serve and be a part of this and to see the community come together,” Carbonell said. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak, what color you are, what race you are ... we come together regardless of these things. And, to us, that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like.”