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HERNANDO — It was cool-brisk afternoon as Keith Roberts picked up a warm blanket off the table.
With only a flannel coat and book bag on his back, he held his new blanket under one arm before being directed toward a collection of bicycles.
“Would you like a bicycle?” asked New Church Without Walls Pastor Doug Alexander.
He grinned in reply.
“Getting a bike means a lot to me,” Roberts said. “I will be using it for transportation.”
Roberts has been sleeping in his friend’s car. As the temperature plummets, he becomes quite cold at night. Receiving a blanket is valuable.
Roberts was among an estimated 100 homeless needy men, women and children assembled Saturday on the grounds of Hernando Park for a Christmas dinner and giveaway. Many attended for various reasons such as food, clothing, toys, fellowship and much-needed supplies.
“We have toys for homeless and families in need,” Alexander said. “The community has come together to give to those in need.”
Overseeing the distribution of farm-fresh food from his organization, DuWayne Sipper said the vegetables were picked from the 10-acre field the morning of the event.
“The guys staying at the shelter want to give back,” said Sipper, executive director of The Path. “It’s kind of weird, but that is how it’s working. They are here helping, but at the same time, they will probably take some bread back with them. The biggest thing about Christmas is not the presents, it’s the people gathering. Interaction with people is more important than the gifts.”
Inverness Walmart Supercenter store manager Larry Gamble had a permanent smile as he buzzed around the crowd. His company donated various camping items along with bicycles.
“Every year, we give out bikes to some people,” Gamble said. “To them, it is like winning a house key on Oprah. You know how excited they are. That is the same thing for these people. They can’t get a job without some form of transportation. For them to walk a mile or two is hard. With a bike, they can do it easily and get out and get a job.”
Gamble brings his family every year so his children can gain a deeper appreciation for what they have. He recognizes a simple item can mean a lot to a person who needs it.
“A Ziploc bag to them is something that will keep their socks, hat or shirt dry when it is raining,” Gamble said. “Last year, we gave away five-gallon buckets, which are like dressers to them to put their belongings in.”
Gamble pointed out the word homeless is not solely for people who live in the woods.
“It means that you don’t have your own roof over your head, or you live with your grandma, friend, mom or you live in someone’s garage,” he said. “So many different people need help.”
However, some Citrus County homeless do live in the woods. Alexander explained some will go to shelters to avoid the freezing temperatures, while others sleep outdoors.
“Some of people volunteering here today will take some homeless home,” he said. “There are a few tough guys in the woods (who) are not going to go with nobody. They have been through the cold before and they feel that they have everything they need with them.”
New Church Without Walls partnered with The Path of Citrus County and Walmart Supercenter in Inverness to host this year’s Christmas feeding at the park. In addition, Little Italy, Chef Anthony’s Pizza Café, Heidi’s Italian Restaurant, Toys for Tots, Pepperidge Farm, Ace Hardware and Taylor Rental joined together to help support the community. Along with providing hot meals, they gave away clothing, camping gear, blankets, Ziploc bags, bicycles, vegetables and food.
Chronicle reporter Eryn Worthington can be contacted at 352-563-5660, ext. 1334, or firstname.lastname@example.org.