Special Reports

In face of own adversity, man feeds Manatee's needy

Rod Khleif owns 400 rental homes, all in foreclosure.

But that hasn’t stopped him from spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars buying food and organizing a giveaway of 1,000 food baskets for the needy this Christmas.

It will be Khleif’s ninth year providing food at Christmas for families in Manatee and Sarasota who otherwise would go without. Last year he provided 500 baskets with the help of several hundred volunteers who helped assemble the baskets and deliver them. This year he wants to double that number.

The fact that his own financial situation is shaky only makes him more determined to keep the basket brigade going through The Tiny Hands Foundation, which he formed in 2000.

He has bought food and baskets for 700 households, but hopes donations from the public will help him fill the remaining 300.

“Times are so tough I didn’t want to give up on this,” Khleif said.

The father of two admits he “went through a period where I was pretty depressed” about his current financial challenges. But adds, “you know you can’t live there. I’m reinventing myself like everyone else who is losing their jobs, starting new businesses or doing things they’ve never done before.”

His business, Gulf Coast Management, was doing pretty well until 2007, when the bottom dropped out of the real estate market and Khleif found himself furiously working to keep a high-occupancy rate in his homes spread across Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Occupancy dropped to 70 percent as financially strapped renters moved in with mom and dad or moved out of the state, he said.

Khleif knows from personal experience just how much the baskets filled with food he gives away are needed.

“A quarter of the people who rent from me pay with credit cards,” he said. “That tells you how bad it is.”

So he is negotiating with banks and hoping for loan modifications to stave off bankruptcy as he and others prepare to make 1,000 families have a very happy Christmas.

Volunteers will arrive at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sarasota on Dec. 19 and assemble baskets filled with gift cards for turkeys from Publix, along with everything that makes a Christmas dinner perfect — potatoes, vegetables, rolls, sweets and even a few toys. Once assembled the baskets will be swathed in colorful cellophane wrap and a box, then delivered individually to homes with a note inscribed, “This is from someone that loves you. We only hope that you can do this for someone else one day.”

The baskets are delivered anonymously — it usually takes 4 1/2 hours — and the response is amazing, volunteers say.

“Most are shocked and so thankful, it really is a wonderful experience,” said Stacie Mullins, a friend of Khleif’s and owner of Debutante Vintage on Siesta Key.

It is Mullins’ fifth year working on the project and her third organizing the volunteers.

“It definitely is a team effort,” she said. “We start organizing it in August.”

Claudia Vitulich, a marketing and public relations specialist and friend of Khleif who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, flies down every year to work on the giveaway.

“There are so many benefits from being a part of it,” said Vitulich, who has helped set up the foundation’s Web site, www.tinyhands foundation.org.

When she learned Khleif’s financial situation had worsen, she thought the basket brigade might be canceled this year.

“But he (Khleif) is incredible, he’s going through with it, but he’s calling on assistance,” she said.

The food giveaway started one Thanksgiving when Khleif and his brother decided they needed to do something to help those who had nothing.

They put together five food baskets and the reaction from the recipients sparked Khleif to form the foundation.

“One woman we delivered to said her husband had left her the day before,” he said. “She was so glad the food was there. I was hooked.”

Each year the basket giveaway had grown, reaching a high of 1,600 recipients in 2007.

But last year, struggling with his own business, Khleif was forced to cut back to 500 baskets. He’s pushed the giving this year back to 1,000.

“Mentally I’m in a good place, I’m not going to starve. I’ll fight through this and come out on the other side,” he said. “I know a lot of people out there a lot worse off than me.”

To donate money or volunteer, call (941) 302-3601 or visit www.tinyhands foundation.org.