MANATEE --Considering it a duty of the faithful, Bradenton's Bible Baptist Church operates a community center at the county's John H. Marble Park.
The church leases a former YMCA facility, giving free food boxes to 90 needy families and hosting games for various sports such as basketball, volleyball and soccer.
It also offers a "Teen Night" each Saturday, along with English classes, addiction services and counseling, according to senior Pastor Sal Yannizzi.
Among its beneficiaries are senior citizens, underprivileged children and those battling addictions.
On the fourth Thursday of every month, the center serves a free pancake breakfast.
"It affords us the opportunity to reach out into the community and share," said Yannizzi. "We get nothing, except we do what the Lord
wants us to do."
The 1,400-member church raises all the money needed to operate the center at 3675 53rd Ave. E. Church members volunteer to keep its programs going, Yannizzi said.
"It's an avenue for them to serve our community," he said. "When you're fulfilling what the Lord wants you to do, it gives a reward. It gives the blessing of God because we're doing what he wants us to do."
The Rev. Paul McLaughlin, 60, of Ellenton, a member of the church's pastoral staff, is director of the activity center. McLaughlin heads God's Way Services, a pastoral Christian counseling center that tends to those struggling with addictions and disappointments in life.
Free counseling is available for those with troubled marriages or other family problems.
"We praise the Lord and pray, talk, come back in and we have a message and allow God to speak to us," said McLaughlin. "There's success here because peoples' lives are genuinely touched" by the Lord's healing power.
In 2011, county officials approved a public-private partnership with the church. As part of a five-year pact, the church agreed to pay $10 a month for use of the center, and to make substantial capital improvements to the 14,951-square-foot building.
It also agreed to maintain the building and grounds.
Manatee County commissioners recently OK'd money for a new air-conditioner, which has been installed at a cost of $6,700, Yannizzi said. The county also continues to operate and maintain other park amenities, including a swimming pool, outdoor basketball court, tennis courts, picnic pavilion, children's playground and public restrooms.
The 6.73-acre park also has a bocce ball court and a radio-controlled racing track, she said. The building previously housed a YMCA facility, which moved its programs to other sites in 2010. YMCA managers complained it was too small and required more than $1 million worth of repairs, the Herald reported at the time. Although the park's pool has been open, it may close soon for good, as county officials say it is regularly used by only about 30 people, and costs too much to operate. They have offered it to various nonprofit groups to operate, including the church, but have no takers.
"It wasn't a part of our lease agreement," said Yannizzi. "It's too much of a liability for us."
County Parks and Recreation Director Cindy Turner would like to close the pool and use the money to keep the pool open longer at the G.T. Bray Park Recreation Center.
Bible Baptist began in Manatee in 1978 and maintains a 33-acre campus at 2113 Morgan Johnson Road.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.