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A Memorial treat for homeless vets

Published May 29, 2007

Tommy Wright, gets a hug of gratitude from Johnny Baker after the last hot dog has been handed out in Williams Park Monday. Jim Socia (pictured rear, right), his daughter Stacey Socia and Wright spent the day grilling hundreds of free hotdogs for the homeless in honor of Memorial Day.
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]

ST. PETERSBURG - Jim Socia came to Williams Park at 10 a.m. on Memorial Day with 100 hot dogs, one Char-Broil grill and two helpers.

He wanted to do something nice for homeless veterans and the hungry.

"Today is for the fallen veterans," said Socia, 51, a St. Petersburg resident. "But I like to help the ones who made it back home."

He pulled up his Ford F-150 along the downtown park's east side and set up his grill beside it. With him: Tommy Wright, an employee at Socia's painting and waterproofing business, and Socia's 18-year-old daughter Stacey.

The trio set up an assembly line, with Socia at the grill, Wright wrapping the hot dogs in buns, and Stacey handing them out, along with the diner's choice of ketchup, mustard, relish and pickles.

"The pickles went real fast," said Stacey, who volunteered to help but had to be dragged out of bed by her dad Monday morning. "I've met a lot of characters today, that's for sure."

Within half an hour of serving, the food was gone, and Socia was off to make the second of what would be seven trips to the grocery store before he was done.

Victor Carbone, 47, sat on the grass next to the grill during one of the breaks. He said he's been homeless for a week and a half, since he was kicked out of a program at Solid Rock Ministries.

"I used," he said. "I just messed up. I went out and got drunk."

He's learned how to survive on the free-food circuit familiar to most of the homeless in Williams Park.

Westley Pletz, a 50-year-old veteran, said he's homeless because his bad back keeps him from working.

"They're great," Pletz said about the volunteers, as he threw bits of bread to the pigeons and seagulls. "They come out here and give their heart and soul."

Cindi Calleia, 29, brought her three children, ages 1, 4 and 8. She's living in a motel but hopes to be able to scrape together a security deposit on an apartment by next week.

She said she wished more people would help the homeless, but she couldn't blame those who were out enjoying their Memorial Day, like the driver of a sport utility vehicle with a water scooter in tow that honked as he drove past.

"I used to be one of them," Calleia said.

Socia said he's always given to charity, and he's been to the park before. About 17 years ago, he promised God that if he could close on the house he wanted, he would serve hot chocolate and soup at the park on the coldest night of the year. He's still living in that house.

By the time the three packed up for the day, just after 2 p.m., they'd handed out more than 400 hot dogs and 12 cases of bottled water at a cost of about $300, Socia estimated. All but $20 - which a woman gave him when he told her of his plans at the store - came out of his pocket.

"I'd have a lot of money if I didn't give it all away," Socia said. "It's nice to have money, but it's not everything."

Stephanie Garry can be reached at or 727 892-2374.

[Last modified May 29, 2007, 00:28:52]

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