Economic pressures and the ailing health of founder Frank Bierwiler contributed to the decision.
By DAN DeWITT
Published September 25, 2003
SPRING HILL - Frank Bierwiler, who has provided food, shelter and clothing to thousands of low-income Hernando County residents, is closing the charity he founded 20 years ago.
The decision to close DayStar Hope Center "was based on his health condition, diminishing funds during this difficult economy, and the knowledge that other organizations are now in place to continue this type of ministry," said a statement from the charity. The closing will be effective Nov. 1.
Bierwiler, 65, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis nearly 30 years ago, has been hit hard by the disease in recent months, said former Sheriff Tom Mylander.
"Frank doesn't go out too much any more. He's sort of homebound. He's cut way down on what he is able to do," said Mylander. Bierwiler, a retired sergeant with the Sheriff's Office, served as its spokesman under Mylander.
Though Bierwiler was not available for comment Wednesday, one of his volunteers said the organization has recently cut back on its services because of a lack of funds. It once commonly helped families with bills if, for example, they faced having electricity turned off.
"We haven't been doing that much lately. Just off and on," said Ronald Hinton, who has volunteered there for seven years. "We're only doing food now."
That sort of assistance may be common now, but it was not when Bierwiler founded DayStar in 1983, said Mylander, a longtime friend.
"He was a pioneer and I think he opened the door for some of these other groups to come in," Mylander said.
Bierwiler did so partly because he was looking for a way to be more involved in the community after losing a close race for Sheriff in 1980, Mylander said.
But mostly, he was fulfilling a promise he made when he was first struck with multiple sclerosis as a New York State police officer in 1974.
"He told God, "Let me survive this and I will do something good,"' Mylander said.
"The Lord doesn't strike you with MS. He allows it to happen so you can re-evaluate your life and get closer to him," Bierwiler said in a 1989 interview.
DayStar opened in a small building on U.S. 19 near Forest Oaks Boulevard.
Two years later, it moved to its current location on U.S. 19, about 3 miles north of State Road 50. The organization expanded steadily over the years, adding an office building, thrift shop and warehouse stocked with with food, used furniture and clothes.
In 1991, it started the Village of Hope, which eventually offered 20 manufactured homes for rent to low-income families. This property was sold in 1997, and DayStar eventually contributed some of the proceeds to the first homeless shelter in the county, built by Jericho Road Ministries Inc.
DayStar was started with a donation from the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, though it later was funded by contributions from more than a dozen churches of several denominations.
St. Andrews Episcopal Church was one of them, said its rector, the Rev. Robin Murray.
When Murray moved to Hernando in 1986, he said, DayStar was one of the few organizations helping low-income families.
"I think DayStar was one of the first in the Spring Hill area that had Christmas baskets and toys for the needy at Christmastime," Murray said, referring to the organization's most visible annual event.
Low-income families can now seek assistance from several other organizations, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, Christian Family Services and the DayStar Life Center in Brooksville, which is not affiliated with Bierwiler's group.
"They're all basically helping low-income people," said Paul Sullivan, of the Hernando County Corps of the Salvation Army.
Both he and Murray also said Bierwiler seemed essential to DayStar Hope Center.
"I think Frank was the spark plug of the whole thing," Murray said.
That is one of the main reasons the organization will have a hard time continuing without him, Hinton said. He has put in countless hours over the years, and unlike the staffers at many organizations, has never been paid.
"To have someone come in and do the amount of work he does and get no pay, it's very unlikely," Hinton said.
That does not mean it's impossible, said some of the volunteers as they left the DayStar compound after it closed early Wednesday afternoon.
Edith Fleer, 77, said she and the other volunteers hope to find someone to replace Bierwiler. Despite the number of organizations that assist needy people, she said, DayStar still gets many pleas for help. And most of them seem sincere, she said.
"We have people who come and don't even have a can of soup left in the cupboard, and we give them food."