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Florida woman earns national award for ministry to homeless

Florida woman earns national award for ministry to homeless

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Florida woman earns national award for ministry to homeless

By Jenna De Marco | July 22, 2009 {1050}

To hear Betty Perry explain it, there’s not much to what she does each week for people living in and around her city who are homeless.

Betty Perry hugs one of her helpers during breakfast. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1250.

“Whatever we can do for these people, we do,” she said.

That simple statement belies what many would consider a daunting commitment to the local homeless population that began 10 years ago when she served breakfast to one needy person. Today, Perry prepares and serves a weekly Sunday breakfast and provides clothes and other items to hundreds of people through the Uncommon Touch Ministry at her church, Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Clearwater, Fla.

“I started out fixing a breakfast for the Sunday school workers, and this one man came … and asked me if he could eat, and I told him yes, and the next Sunday I ended up with six people,” Perry said.

Perry recognized there was a need for a regular feeding ministry, and a weekly routine was born. It includes providing a hot breakfast of eggs, sausage, grits, biscuits, corned beef hash, juice, milk and coffee. The food is prepared from scratch each week, mostly by Perry, whose preparations begin on Tuesday and continue throughout the week, all while holding down a paying job. The breakfast preparations take place in advance, she said, so that Sundays can be reserved for heating and serving the food.

Betty Perry receives the 2009 Jefferson Award for extraordinary public service. Photo courtesy of the 2009 Jefferson Awards for Public Service. Photo #09-1251.

Those efforts generated local and national attention recently when Perry won the 2009 Jefferson Award for extraordinary public service. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, United States Senator Robert Taft Jr. and award director Sam Beard founded the Jefferson Awards in 1972.  Betty is one of 75 winners from local communities who traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to be honored.

Her “compassionate spirit” in helping less fortunate people demonstrates a principle at the heart of the United States — volunteerism in local communities, Beard said.

“Betty wins the Jefferson Award because of her program at the church,” Beard said. “It’s just an example of what goes right back to the founding of the county, which is that volunteer spirit.”

Despite the recognition she is receiving, Perry focuses on the merits and features of the breakfast program.

“It’s an awesome ministry, and I love doing it,” she said.

More than a meal

The Sunday diners come from surrounding communities, including Dunedin, Largo, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, Perry said.

“They are traveling far because what they say to us is we’re the only people who treat them like human beings,” Perry said. “We know their names. Even if it is new people, we know their names before they leave.”

Volunteers serve breakfast to their guests. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1252.

When the crowds arrive for breakfast, they find more than a meal awaiting them. First, they can visit the “clothes closet,” a collection of donated clothing and personal hygiene and baby care items, Perry said. Then the group joins in a pre-meal devotion.

“The prayer is done by them,” Perry said. “They can sign up, or they can just volunteer when they get in.”

The breakfast ministry volunteers and the Rev. Lawrence Barriner, pastor at the church, make a point of emphasizing the Scripture verse of the morning and prayer, Perry said. Barriner often joins the participants at the table for conversation.

“We sit down and we talk to them and we need to deal with where they are and we need to let them know that there’s someone who cares and that God cares,” Perry said.

That includes providing a dining experience that’s visually satisfying, with tablecloths and flowers on each table.

“We don’t just throw the food at them,” Perry said.

Given the large volume of food and drinks served each Sunday, coordinating smooth preparation and distribution is important, Perry said. She estimates the weekly consumption includes a case of bananas, 15 dozen eggs, nine pounds of sausage, six or more gallons of milk, four gallons of orange juice, four gallons of apple juice, enough coffee for 150 people, two gallons of cranberry juice, 10 pounds of grits and 250 to 300 biscuits. She also stocks non-perishable snacks and drinks at the church for families with hungry children.

A member helps prepate breakfast. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1253.

The ministry costs run an average of $1,400 per month, depending on what needs to be re-stocked. Perry sometimes has funded all of the expenses herself, she said, although food and monetary donations come in more often now.

“I do a lot of praying, and all I worry about now is, ‘Are my bills paid?’ ” she said. “And I still pay my tithes and offerings, and people just come to me with donations.”

Barriner said the impact of Perry’s ministry is impressive, especially in the context of a church with a “lean budget” and fewer than 200 members. He emphasized the ministry’s Biblical underpinnings.

“I think it is important because Christ has called us to be in solidarity with the poor,” he said. “And that’s a biblical mandate to be in solidarity with them.”

Struggling families seek assistance

The national economic recession makes the ministry more relevant than ever, Perry said. Some of those helped have children, while others may have run short on their public food assistance resources. Some are day laborers whose employment is inconsistent, and others have reached the end of the month with no money left for food.

“You would be amazed at the people we have now that used to have jobs that don’t have jobs now,” Perry said.

Perry tries to help the families with children by providing extra milk and juice. She also makes hot dogs, frozen dinners, canned goods and cereal available when possible.

“It is very heartbreaking to see sometimes,” Perry said. “I can be just about in tears, especially when I see the kids.”

The majority of the children at breakfast end up attending Sunday school too, Perry said.

A member leads a devotional before breakfast. Photo by Caryl Kelley. Photo #09-1254.

“We have grown because some of the kids stay for Sunday school and some of the people who come for breakfast stay for Sunday school and worship,” she said.

Donations needed

The expense of the program outweighs the church’s ability to fund it, however, and more donations are welcome, Barriner said. Individuals interested in making a contribution may write a check payable to Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, with “Uncommon Touch” in the memo line. The church address is 825 Howard Street, Clearwater, FL 33756.

The church also makes an offering box available for the breakfast ministry and has started an envelope number for donations, Perry said. A Christmas day meal ministry also generated sufficient donations to serve meals made from 15 turkeys and 15 hams, alongside candied yams, greens, cornbread, rolls and gravy.

Support from a variety of Mt. Zion United Methodist Church members and outside volunteers makes the feeding ministries possible, Perry said.

A brief article and video about Perry and the breakfast ministry appears on the Tampa-area ABC news affiliate Web site at

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.