Community helps Lakeland food pantry destroyed in fire ahead of Thanksgiving rush

LAKELAND, Fla. - It has been nearly a week since a man was arrested for setting a Lakeland food pantry on fire and causing the destruction of Thanksgiving meals for thousands of families.

On Tuesday morning, Metropolitan Ministries of Tampa delivered 500 turkeys and 500 food boxes to the pantry located on South Combee Road. The non-profit organization's vice president of operations saw New Testament Ministries was struggling and knew he had to support them after the tragedy.

"We know for a food pantry like this and for an organization like ours, contributions are lower this year and everybody is suffering from that," said Rob Lamke, the vice president of operations at Metropolitan Ministries. "We can only imagine what this meant to them and how devastating this was."

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Gordon Nelson, 60, was arrested and charged with felony first-degree arson in connection with the fire. The Polk County Sheriff's Office said Nelson was seen on surveillance video lighting a stack of pallet crates on fire and then riding away on a bicycle.

According to the arrest affidavit, Nelson denied starting the fire and said he was only an observer. However, an orange lighter was found in his left pocket.

Lynn Mollett, who has a catering company in Tampa, also wanted to help the pantry get back onto its feet Tuesday, so she dropped off lots of Thanksgiving fixings for a couple of hundred people.

"You can't even imagine that someone could do this, especially this time of year. Anytime, period," said Mollett of Lynn's Catering. "It's what we do, so I was glad to help in any way we can, especially on Thanksgiving."

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In addition to donations, volunteers were cleaning up the damaged space too. The founder of New Testament Ministries said he never imagined he'd see this amount of generosity and kindness.

"Especially in trials, our community gets stronger, and I also noticed one more thing," said Dais Abraham, the founder of New Testament Ministries. "It was not the best [situation], but it became the best that I could ever imagine because the community came together. It was the best thing that could happen."

The fire caused destruction, but the fire ignited compassion inside hearts, and created hope. Abraham said he's planning on expanding to a new location that will be bigger and better.

Families can pick up their meals outside the pantry in a drive-thru distribution format on Wednesday, Nov. 22 from 12-2 p.m.