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A school tradition

St. Petersburg Catholic's signature event each year is not Homecoming. It's a huge food drive for the needy.

By MELIA BOWIE
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 21, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Krysal Kinnunen]
St. Petersburg Catholic High School students Matt Batty, 17, front, and Mike Bush, 16, help load donated groceries into a 24-foot-long rental truck Tuesday morning.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Through the gym doors of St. Petersburg Catholic High School, past the soda machines, the sneaker-streaked floor and the rows of teenagers spilling from bleachers at a special Thanksgiving Day prayer service Tuesday, Sister Rose Marie Infinito needed a miracle.

With only days to go until Thanksgiving and empty cupboards at her Daystar Life Center food pantry in St. Petersburg, she watched as students nearing the end of a two-week food drive carried out a large wood board draped in white cloth.

Moments earlier the school's assistant director of youth ministry, John McMahon, had finished tallying the collected food items. Would it be enough?

"We're down to cereal and rice," Infinito confided. "We're really hurting."

The goal was to raise 35,000 items this year, explained some of the high school's 640 students. And as the white cloth was lifted, a brightly painted number on the board inspired a standing ovation, tears and smiles at their success: "41,142 ... and counting."

Infinito had her miracle.

So did a euphoric Rev. John Hartnett, whose St. Giles Episcopal Church emergency food pantry in Pinellas Park will also benefit from the students' efforts.

"Prior to Sept. 11, the day that changed the world, there was an increase in need, but it was marginal," the Rev. Hartnett explained. "After that date, statistics show our need has increased over 400 families a month."

That equates to more than 2,000 people a month in need of food, said the Rev. Hartnett -- the largest spike he has ever seen.

"Because of what they (the students) did today, they could feed one pantry, our size, our volume for six months," he said. "That's how important what these kids did is. It's just amazing."

The food drives began in 1957 and drew in a few hundred to a few thousand cans at first. Recent efforts, which are several times larger than those earliest drives, have inspired a sense of solidarity and teamwork, said the teenagers who noted that last year's 20,000 goal was topped when they brought in more than 30,000 items.

This time students, who began collecting two weeks ago, did everything they could think of to get the food in during an especially trying year.

"We thought we weren't going to make it," said junior Becka Reidy, 16. "We put notes on people's doors and told them we were doing a canned food drive."

Some classes gave extra credit for cans, 15-year-old junior Christine Amodeo added.

Others set up boxes at their parents' workplaces, raised money to buy goods in bulk, held homeroom and grade-level competitions, even donated babysitting money.

Then there was junior David Keith, 16, a bagger at Publix who offered to match whatever his homeroom class raised.

By Tuesday morning, his 25 classmates had accumulated more food than any other class in the school: 3,364 items. Keith, who started his job at the supermarket two months ago, gave up $200 from his weekly paycheck and bought food with his employee discount.

"It feels really good," he said. "It started out as a small thing, and now it's a school tradition."

The Rev. Louis Molinelli, principal of St. Petersburg Catholic High, said the food drive has become the signature event for the school. "I'm proud as anything.

"You could not force kids to bring in 41,000 cans. It has to come from the heart," he said, scanning the boxes of pasta, soups, sauces, canned vegetables, meat, cereals and more -- all waiting to be loaded on to a 24-foot-long Ryder truck for delivery. "A lot of the kids don't have tons of cash. They may not even have a lot of time, but this is something they can do and know they are of service."

How to donate

Donations can be made to Daystar Life Center, an emergency assistance center with a food pantry that serves all of Pinellas County at 226 Sixth St. S. For hours or more information, contact 825-0442. Donations are also being accepted by the food pantry at St. Giles Episcopal Church located at 8271 52nd St. N in Pinellas Park, which serves mid Pinellas County. For more information or hours, call 545-2664.

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