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December 15, 2019
“It’s like Christmas every day,” exclaims Luann Leahy, loading her van like Santa packs his sleigh with food for the homeless. “We feed someone every single day.” The founder of PBJ Ministry and her group of volunteers have been making sandwiches for the needy— spreading peanut butter, jelly and love — for 14 years. “We started out making 60 loaves of bread every month with five volunteers. Now we make 700 loaves with 60 volunteers.”
The passion project was born after Leahy retired from a long career at TECO to stay home with her three kids. Once the oldest went off to school, Leahy felt a tug to “do something more.” Making PB&J’s, she thought, would be simple, quick and inexpensive. She pitched the idea to her church, and it skyrocketed.
To see the ministry in action, we visit Nativity Catholic Church in Brandon, which donates its event space and supplies from its abundant food bank stocked generously by local supermarkets. Volunteers arrive by the dozens. They come from all over Tampa Bay and all walks of life. At one table, an accountant, two stay-at-home moms and a retired couple develop an assembly line that’s duplicated throughout the room. It takes less than one minute to make each sandwich. In just two hours, the group produces 4,000 PB&J’s.
“We feed their bellies and their souls,” says Sandy Parker, a volunteer who came up with the idea of placing labels on the sandwich bags. Each label is decorated by local children and includes an inspirational message. “Doing this increases your sense of gratitude and appreciation,” says volunteer Karina Cardozo. “You are reminded of how others have less, and it puts your life in perspective.”
Once the sandwiches are ready, we follow Leahy on her delivery route. We drop off donations at three facilities that feed the homeless. At St Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Tampa, which serves lunch daily, we meet
Rebecca Hess and her husband, a young couple who lives on the streets. “She shows us love,” Hess says of Leahy. “That means everything. “
That kind of gratitude is what fuels Leahy’s passion. She doesn’t make a penny doing this. In fact, she spends money driving around town at her own expense to pick up and deliver donations daily. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I never imagined I would touch so many lives,” she says.
To date, PBJ Ministry has made more than half a million sandwiches and partnered with 10 facilities in Hillsborough County to distribute them. During the holidays, the charity expands its outreach with special projects like making Christmas stockings and goody bags. Leahy’s success is proof positive that a simple idea— a nagging call that is answered rather than ignored— can change your life—and countless others.