By Dan Harkins
LAKE HELEN - Suzie Burbridge had just started feeling the financial strain of gaining custody of her five grandchildren a few years back when she heard a knock on the front door of her Orange City home.
It was Carole Fritz, founder of Last Chance Outreach Ministries in Lake Helen, asking if she needed a loaf of bread.
"One day I made lunch for all five kids and it took one-and-a-half loaves to do it," Ms. Burbridge says on a recent afternoon at Last Chance. "So the next day when they came back, I said, 'Yes,' again. Then I decided it was time for me to pay this forward."
Ms. Burbridge is one of about a dozen of Ms. Fritz's regular volunteers at Last Chance, a hulking warehouse at 133 E. Ohio Ave. that's stuffed to the ceiling in parts with food, clothes, toys and furniture. Two walk-in coolers donated by a Chick-Fil-A, souped up with air conditioning units, keep all the perishables edible.
Not a price tag in sight.
The mission and its leadership has led Ms. Burbridge to look on Ms. Fritz as family in such a short time.
"Now," Ms. Burbridge jokes, "my Mom and Dad say, 'Remember us?' Your real parents?"
Ms. Fritz beams from her cluttered perch of a desk near the back of the warehouse. Short and bubbly, with a directness that comes from being a single mother of seven, the 75-year-old former bus driver founded this ministry 15 years ago with her new husband, Lauren. She gets this kind of praise all the time.
It's not why she does it, though.
"What brought me here?" she asks, repeating the question. Silently, she looks up and smiles.
Visitors, totaling as many as 100 or more a day, are asked to make a donation when they leave, but if they can't, they're sent on their way with no sour looks.
They aren't asked for personal information either, like Social Security numbers or last names. Just a first name and home city will do.
"The only thing I need to know is do they have a need, what the need is and how I can help," Ms. Fritz said. "The people who come in here, they're embarrassed enough because they're in a situation they shouldn't be in. So why make it so much harder for them to come back by asking a million and one questions?"
She doesn't know anywhere else around that the needy can get such anonymous aid.
"There's nobody in the county or even the counties around us that I know of that does everything just for donations," Ms. Fritz says. "We're special that way."
It's often a logistical nightmare. One day, 100 cases of pita bread need to be picked up from Orlando; the next, 2,000 pounds of cheesecake is on offer in Sanford. Every family with kids has been getting a month supply of Christmas-themed mini-M&Ms since the holidays. It's not a problem: She's still got two pallet boxes half-full of the stuff.
"I've got the experience to handle it, though," she says. "My background has prepared me."
After raising her children without a dime from their father in Pennsylvania, working as a dispatcher and bus driver, she met Lauren, now the ministry's ordained pastor, and they soon moved to Deltona in 1994.
"This all started with two bags of clothes," Mr. Fritz recalls. "It just progressed from there."
That donation for a needy family turned into dozens. Over the next dozen years, the donations filled the couple's garage, front porch, living room and even backyard.
Three years ago, the now-retired Ms. Fritz went looking for a place to keep her trove, as well as the troves of a half-dozen local congregations. She found it in Lake Helen (population: 3,000).
To get the word out, the couple cooked up 100 pounds of donated chicken and rice for an impromptu barbecue at Hopkins Hall. They knew the community had pockets of rich and poor residents. So she sent a volunteer around on a motorcycle to hand out free tickets to anyone who thought free and barbecue sounded nice in the same sentence.
She got Mayor Buddy Snowden to show up and help serve about 500 people that day.
"We had a restaurant in DeLand agree to make all the rice and vegetables," she said. "It didn't cost us a dime. We had all nationalities come, and that was the goal, to bring people together. If you don't, there's always going to be a separation."
From then on, a steady stream has poured through the warehouse. It's a non-denominational crowd. And not everyone is needy.
One recent afternoon, 28-year-old Melissa Gill, a local stay-at-home mom, brought a bag of donations and went away with some toys for her children and a cake for dessert.
"We didn't come to take, we came to give," she said. "But look: I'm leaving with chocolate cake."
They've even hosted two weddings and two funeral wakes in this warehouse, for people who couldn't afford anything special.
Anything that starts piling up too high is sent to even needier areas. They've sent extra food and clothes as far away as Haiti and Mexico, and to hard-hit areas in Pennsylvania and Kentucky. And when families aren't able to come to the warehouse, somebody from Last Chance is happy to come to them.
"It comes in as fast as we can give it out," Mr. Fritz said, dwarfed in a back room by mounds of donated goods. "It's a blessing."
And it's far from over, his wife promised.
"It's been an adventure, a real long road," she says "But I'm not done yet. Not by a long shot."