DCF sees light about First Baptist missions

The A Team parachuted into First Baptist Church of Leesburg last week and left with a new perspective on Lake County and how it struggles to care for homeless people and those addicted to alcohol and drugs.

Top administrators at the state Department of Children and Families were impressed — about $250,000 worth of impressed, which is the amount they offered the church mission, just to start.


And there may be more cash to come. Heaven knows that Lake needs it.

"The fact that the church has dedicated its missions to help the needy is awesome," said William D'Aiuto, DCF administrator in charge of five counties, including Lake.

DCF a couple weeks ago had cut First Baptist out of the process to win a $750,000 grant to renovate the Big Bass Motel into a shelter for homeless families. The reason? The church's partner, the Mid Florida Homeless Coalition, failed to turn in a page with the signature of its official.

The church has places for single men, single women and mothers with children. But those who work with the homeless are seeing more and more families nowadays, thanks to the devastated economy and the crazy foreclosure rate. These are the same families who used to contribute to the mission. Now, they're seeking help.

A lot of those families don't want to split up, so they stay where they can — maybe with a relative, sometimes in a campground and occasionally in a tent in the woods. The number of homeless children in Lake County schools this year rose 140 percent, to nearly 800 kids. That gives Lake the dubious distinction of having the second-highest increase in homeless students in the state.

First Baptist took a leap of faith when it bought the motel, and many people in Lake jumped with the church, providing support and cash that allowed the missions to take the first step.

Then the church applied for $750,000 from the state. Executive Pastor Art Ayris had studied the requirements and felt pretty sure the church would rank high on the state's list of who ought to get money. Being scratched off entirely was heartbreaking.

Friday's visit, however, may have inspired some DCF officials to look for cash in other budgetary nooks and crannies.

"When they saw the medical, educational, vocational and other range of support services underneath this shelter, their eyes seem to widen quite a bit," Ayris said.

And they made an "unqualified offer" of $250,000 toward "getting the shelter going," he said.

"How do you say, 'Thank God' in 58 different languages?"

D'Aiuto has lived in this area for 30 years and was familiar with First Baptist even before the visit, but the comprehensive nature of the variety of missions all in one spot hit home with him and the other officials.

"They have it all: health care, food pantry, clothing, a full setup for women at the Pregnancy Care Center, after-school extended care for kids," he said. "This project would be the last piece of the puzzle."

D'Aiuto said many churches in the area do good work, but none offers the same "one-stop shop" for the community that First Baptist does.

The DCF administrators vowed to return to Tallahassee to try to put together a bigger package of aid, so the church can get the 37 rooms open even more quickly. D'Aiuto said he hopes to have something to offer the church and the homeless coalition within a few weeks.

That's when DCF Secretary George Sheldon, who decided to change procedures to avoid denial of grants for technical glitches and to search for money for First Baptist, is to visit the complex on Main Street in Leesburg.

And if the church isn't close enough to the people it serves already, a new deal with Second Harvest Food Bank will bring the missions even closer to homeless people. Last week, the missions inked a deal with Second Harvest to become a distribution center. About 10,000 pounds of food a month will pass through the church and directly into the hands of people who are hungry.

It just gets better and better.

Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com. You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918. Her blog is at OrlandoSentinel.com/ laurenonlake.

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