Andrea Tillman has spent the last seven years organizing “gatherings” to feed members of the Plant City community and give them a place to relax, play and worship.
Andrea Tillman knows a thing or two about pain. Though she could probably write a book about overcoming the hardships in her life, Tillman’s not in a hurry to start churning out those pages. Other people come first.
That’s why once a year, no matter who you are or what you’re going through, Tillman’s got a plate ready for you and a place where you can feel welcome.
“I try to show my love by being a light because I know what it is to go through things,” Tillman said. “I know what hurt is about. I just love to see people happy and it makes me happy when I see that. That’s what I get hyped up on.”
The Plant City native has organized seven of these “gatherings” in town, most recently with the Nov. 16 afternoon event at Marie B. Ellis Park. Hundreds of people came out to enjoy a freshly-cooked meal, win door prizes, let their children play at the playground, get toys and have their faces painted, hear testimonials from people who have overcome their own hardships and lift their spirits with the praise team from Tillman’s church, St. Luke Missionary Baptist.
It hasn’t always been easy to host the event. Sometimes it was because something happened in Tillman’s life, like the passing of her husband two years ago after 34 years of marriage. Sometimes people took advantage of the event itself, like in 2017 when three bags of toys were stolen from the park when no one was watching them. And then there’s this year, when Tillman continued to organize the event despite battling an eye problem that will require surgery.
“I don’t worry about what I’m going through,” she said. “I try not to. Keep doing something for somebody else and it’s gonna work out for you… I’m trying to do something positive for other people. I’ve got to stay humble and I’ve got to keep the faith.”
In addition to her unshakable faith, Tillman’s also got a strong support system. Iris Miller, her beautician and one of her best friends, was among the first to encourage her to try hosting the gatherings and still helps out to this day. Many of her children — like sons Andre, Adrian and Raheem Tillman, as well as daughters Shakita, Tawanna and Adriana Tillman, who all helped this year — work closely on the project. Her niece, LaToya Graham, has worked with her every year and countless other family members and loved ones lend helping hands. Pastor Dr. Larry Sykes and St. Luke have lent their support and resources from the jump. Angelo Murray and the Plant City Colts organization have been invaluable, she said, as have Sam Miller, Wayne Ward, Calvin Richardson and many others in the community.
Without all this support, Tillman said, putting on the annual event wouldn’t be possible.
And when she says all people are welcome, she means all people.
“You have to love on people,” she said. “I don’t care how dirty they are. If they want a hug and I’ve got on white, they’ll get a hug.”
Tillman always hopes those fighting drug problems will come out and maybe find the inspiration to quit. She knows that struggle as well as anyone. She left home at 18, just one day after her mother died, and turned to drugs — “looking for love in the wrong places,” she said — to cope with life. After a relapse following the untimely death of one of her daughters, Tillman is proud to say she’s lived drug-free for more than 30 years and is quick to credit God with turning her life around.
Though the annual gathering does well now, Tillman hopes to see it grow in the future with both a greater outreach of community support and more people from all walks of life coming out to enjoy themselves in a family-friendly event. She hopes to get more guest speakers to give the kids positive role models, too. But until 2020 rolls around, Tillman can be happy that so many people went to the park that day and got something they needed.
“To see those little kids so happy, even the young people and the homeless and the ones on drugs that were there, they were so happy,” Tillman said. “Everyone was united and it was awesome.”