Members and volunteers who help to feed hungry people who have no jobs and no support locally believe the Helping Hands Ministry at the First Community Congregational are serving between 8,000 and 9,000 people a month through the church's soup kitchen which is open Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Just last month, the church served about 1,000 people and has served as many at 1,700 in prior weeks.
While Pastor Deb Frysinger insists the publicity about her church and what the people are doing is not about her, she oversees many of the activities that are helping this community. She insists that the volunteers are the people who help make it all work and she notes that with the contributions of food from individuals and organizations in addition to the purchase of food from the Harry Chapin Food Bank, they are able to help a great many people.
While a few economists nationally say there is a small, albeit very small, upward movement in the improvement in the economy, Frysinger says she doesn't see it happening in Lehigh Acres yet.
First Community Congregational Church has a soup kitchen and provides food to those in need.
"We are told there are 300 people who are homeless here; many of them come to us each week, I believe there may be many more. These people are hungry and have in the most part no place to sleep, but a vehicle or in the woods. One woman I have met sleeps in the back of her car and moves from street to street on different nights so law enforcement won't bother her," Frysinger said.
The First Community Congregational Church at 200 E. Leeland Heights Blvd. may be the church that is providing the most help to the thousands of people in the area who need food. There are other church that are also helping.
The church calls it their Helping Hands Ministry, which in addition to the soup kitchen on Wednesdays and Fridays, also provides a "produce ministry." All types of produce, dairy products, bread and other items are provided.
Then there is the church's food pantry in the administration building. It is open from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The pantry contains frozen meat and canned goods. You must have an ID on you with a Lehigh address. A form is provided to be filled out showing income qualifications to get USDA food. This is a requirement of the USDA Food services.
"But without it, we can still hand out food, just not as much," Frysinger said. "We have our Bread Ministry on Saturdays from 8 to 10 a.m. and we hand out fresh bread and pastries. One of our volunteers, who asks for no credit, goes to Fort Myers and picks up the fresh products from different supermarkets early in the morning."
Now Frysinger and others in church are planning a new ministry. It's to be called "How to stretch our Food" and will begin on Feb. 12 from 10 a.m. to noon and on Tuesdays same time.
"This is to help people do things that will stretch their food to make it go longer and we have some very good ideas. People can cook; they can sample foods and take home recipes," she said.
The How to stretch your Food program will be taught by Linda Edwards, who will use food people can get from the church. Included will be Thanksgiving recipes, how to cook a turkey and how to make mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casseroles and Waldorf salads.
During the recent food giveaways from the church and from other churches in the community, it has been learned that many young men and women do not know how to make mashed potatoes
"We older people take that for granted; but it is something we have discovered with a lot of the young people who get food," she said.
The church isn't stopping there.
"There is so much we all must do in this community if we are a community that cares," she said.
"We are in the planning stages now for an Exercise Ministry which will include dancing 'to the beat.' We all 'dance' to a certain beat so let's make it fun," she said.
"Our church is still struggling financially because of the economy. It is the same with many other churches. The problem again is all because of the economy - people are not giving as much now because they can't afford to give as much as before," Frysinger said.
But the church holds events to help raise money to help meet expenses with the rest going to helping people with food.
The church has a flea market that is held on the first and second Friday and Saturday of every month from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. It has become one of the largest flea market/garage-like sales in Lehigh. There is also breakfast for $4 on the first and second Saturday of every month from 8 to 10 a.m.
And they also put on a church Bingo on the first Monday every month with a fee of $15 to get in. At 6:3 0 p.m., winners from each game receive cash, she said.
A free car show is held on the parking lot on the third Friday of every month with more than 50 antique and classic cars on display.
On Feb. 23, the church will hold an antique appraisal session with Richard Gannon's Antiques in Fort Myers doing appraisals. Each appraised item will cost $5 or three items for $10. He will also buy your items made out of gold.
Down the road, there is a strawberry festival with the berries coming from Plant City. There will be ice cream, fresh cake and sandwiches and all the fixings. Check the church for the date.
More events are planned for March 23 including a Seder Passover Meal, sponsored by "Chosen People" which is a group from northern Florida. Call the office of the church for tickets because there is room for only 100 people. The cost will be a nominal fee. Call 369-1615 to RSVP.
Later next month, the church will hold its Maine Lobster Dinner.
It has been brought back by popular demand and the price is $20 with the date to be announced. There are from 40 to 45 members who volunteer to make all these things happen and volunteers are not necessarily from the church. If you're interested in becoming a volunteer, the church will welcome you with open arms.
"We all are equal here," Frysinger said. "We give people hope, too. Our volunteers use their eyes, hands and words to help others. The church offers a class for new volunteers.
There are other sources in Lehigh that provide food.
According to a calendar published by Lehigh Community Services and available at its Plaza Ave. office, you can get bread from Faith Lutheran Church, food from Lehigh Community Services, St. Raphael's Catholic church, Our Daily Bread of the Methodist Church, the New Life Assembly Church and from the Lehigh Acres Christian Church. The Lehigh Senior Citizen Center also offers free lunches at noon during the week to members and their guests.
More information can be gotten by calling the church or by also calling Lehigh Community Services.