Freedom Gathering growing on 14th Street West in Bradenton
Shiny new shoes? Check. Neon backpack? Check. Deodorant? Definitely check.
School starts on Monday in Manatee County, and for many parents that means it’s time to shop.
But for families who are already struggling to make ends meet, school supplies can be one more distressing financial burden.
That’s where some locals with the spirit of giving are stepping in to help out.
On Thursday night, friendly volunteers stood behind tables loaded with clothes outside of Freedom Gathering Church on 14th Street West in Bradenton. Rows of colorful backpacks full of school and hygiene supplies were stacked alongside.
All of the items were free of charge for parents who came pick them up for their young children.
The religious non-profit organization coordinated the giveaway with members of Bradenton’s First Church of the Nazarene and some generous local individuals.
Among the donors was Oscar Villegas, who lives in Parrish and owns a landscaping business.
Villegas said the church he attended as a boy in Texas gave money to foreign nations and people in need, and it inspired him to do the same one day.
“I prayed really hard and said that if someone comes along that I can help, I promise to do that,” Villegas said.
Villegas also knows what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.
“I always worked at a job where I made just enough,” Villegas says. “But God opened a big door for me, and now I’m well set. So now we are providing to others.”
His daughter Natalie helped him do the shopping and deliver their donation.
Linda Wandel, a member of First Church of the Nazarene’s congregation, delivered 30 backpacks and supplies purchased with donations from church members and FGC volunteers. The Nazarene congregation also recently donated 140 backpacks to H.S. Moody Elementary School.
Another 24 backpacks filled with supplies came from Amanda Roman, a Palmetto woman who saved up money from several paychecks to make the donation.
“God blessed me with the ability to buy everything, and so my mom and I picked out the school supplies and decided that Freedom Gathering was where God wanted us to help this year,” Roman said.
Vicki and Cliff Hofferbert, volunteers from First Nazarene, helped distribute the backpacks.
“This place is a blessing for the community,” Vicki said. “You get to hear people’s real stories. And you learn to embrace them with open arms, no matter what the situation is.”
Michelle Smith, another First Nazarene member who frequently volunteers at FGC, helped people pick out clothes.
Smith said she was inspired to get involved because she was helped in a time of need when she lived in New York.
“I’d rather give help hand to hand than just donating to a charity,” Smith said. “That’s how I was helped.”
Smith says her favorite part is seeing the smiles on faces of those that the organization serves.
FGC does a lot more than coordinate donations. The non-profit serves hundreds of weekly meals to the homeless and those in need.
On Thursday night, Pastor Lee Jackson gave a sermon as a crowd of many ages and backgrounds sat down to eat together under the open sky.
“I always say we feed them naturally and spiritually,” said Tonia Johnson, the Bradenton businesswoman who started FGC. “People that are homeless never get to rest or sit down and relax somewhere, so we give them a chance to do that.”
The balanced meals include fresh and organic fruits and vegetables and grilled meats. On Wednesdays, the church offers a to-go lunch of sandwiches made with meat donated by Boar’s Head Provisions in Sarasota.
Johnson says that FGC’s clientele also includes families who have lost their homes, and sometimes cars, and are forced to live out of hotels. It leaves them without money for food or extras like school supplies.
Richard Davis was among the parents picking up supplies for his children on Thursday. Davis says he formerly had a drug addiction, but FGC helped him find recovery — and spiritual deliverance. Now he’s working again.
“God has his hand on this place,” Davis said.
“Never lose faith,” he added. “You can’t have testimony without the test.”
There were still more backpacks left to give by then end of the event, which volunteers said would be distributed over the next several weeks.
Villegas said he hopes others are encouraged to make donations.
“There are a lot of people that would get involved if they knew what was needed,” Villegas said. “And there are a lot of beautiful people around here helping already.”
Freedom Gathering Church is always in need of volunteers and donations, Johnson says, and they are especially short on men’s and boy’s clothing. The best way to get in touch with the non-profit is via Facebook.