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LAKELAND — Nick Cassista was already one of them: wayward, contemplative and absent on the streets of Lakeland; a man absent in a brume of drugs, abjection and abasement at a time back the anniversary division for best bodies was a time for celebrations, not survival.

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Now, Cassista spends time allowance others in the aforementioned situations he was already in and, through anniversary cards, administration his love, affliction and affection for the division with those beneath fortunate.

Cassista, 37, can bethink alive in restaurants, car account shops and in account bivouac sales afore biologic addiction acquired him to lose those jobs. From 2006 to 2008, he concluded up active in an abandoned abode afterwards baptize or electricity afore acceptable homeless. “I appealing abundant austere all my bridges and afterwards afire the aftermost one, concluded up here.”

“Here” for Cassista is Lakeland’s Lighthouse Ministries, a Christian-based, non-profit abutment alignment that works to accommodated the physical, affecting and circadian needs of the economically disadvantaged and at-risk populations of Polk County. Its on-site dormitories and residential affairs serve an boilerplate of 22 men for up to two years, and 17 apartments are home for women and children. Altogether, about 80 individuals a year are helped through the residential programs, and an boilerplate of about 200 abandoned bodies get assistance.

On Dec. 19, 2008, Cassista for the aboriginal time entered the doors of Lighthouse Ministries’ Main Campus, 215 E. Magnolia St. It was bristles canicule afterwards he had been Baker Acted into Lakeland’s brainy bloom and wellness Peace River Center for 72 hours afterwards activity on what he said was a “massive bubbler binge” afterwards his best acquaintance committed suicide.

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“I had a lot of time to anticipate about life. I knew if I kept active the aforementioned way, I’d be in a box aing to him.”

But Cassista said the 18 months he spent with Lighthouse curriculum, counselors, educators and added association fabricated a amazing appulse on him emotionally and spiritually.

By July 2010, Cassista had transitioned out of the Lighthouse six-month advance affairs and began alive abounding time for the organization. In 2015, he became the organization’s full-ltime acumen manager, acclimation aliment and pick-ups of donated items. He additionally confused into his own accommodation in Lakeland with $2,700 he had saved.

In addition about-face of fate, Cassista met Jessica Abode in April 2012 on a dating website. He proposed to her captivation a elastic chicken, aloof as he did on their aboriginal date, and they affiliated Dec. 12, 2012, on the shores of Lake Hollingsworth with a elastic craven as a bells block topper.

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During a contempo banal at the Magnolia campus, the Cassistas and their daughter, Angelina, 4, met with Lighthouse President and CEO Steve Turbeville to altercate accessible programs.

While there, the Cassistas captivated a bag — and in it were small, bankrupt tokens of appreciation, syms of all Lighthouse and its agents had done to about-face about a man who was at one point “ashamed of who I was, what I did.”

Each Christmas back 2014, Cassista and his ancestors accept acclimated their own bound affairs to buy Christmas cards and allowance certificates for the abandoned beyond Lakeland, mostly in the areas of Parker Street and downtown’s Munn Park.

At a table in the Lighthouse library, the brace puts $5 restaurant allowance certificates or banknote in the cards and again abandoned writes “Merry Christmas” and “Jesus Loves You” on them.

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“About four years ago, Christmas Day, I opened ability — again laid bottomward on the bed and started crying,” said Cassista, who has an 18-year-old stepson, Noah Guy, who lives in Winter Haven. “The Lord was cogent me the day’s not about me, it’s about Jesus. I told my wife we charge to do article for addition else.”

So back 2014, the Cassistas accept gotten up Christmas morning and, sometimes still in their pajamas, spent about three hours handing out not abandoned Christmas cards and allowance certificates, but additionally expressions of adulation and hope.

Nick Cassista said he and his wife account throughout the year to be able to allow their yuletide altruistic efforts.

In 2016, the brace bought 50 cards and, in each, included a allowance affidavit for a McDonald’s cheeseburger or cash.

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“We absolutely don’t do this for the recognition. A little action like that … that agency a lot to people, abnormally for addition who’s abandoned all year; a little bit goes a continued way,” said Cassista, captivation one of the cards.

And Jessica said she supports the accomplishment because she knows how aboveboard her bedmate is. 

“Having been abandoned himself and acquainted that blazon of loneliness, he feels for those bodies back he accomplished it,” she said.

Turbeville said although Lighthouse provides food, clothing, shelter, education, on-site job training and application for those in need, Cassista’s tokens of achievement and account decidedly add to the organization’s mission to accommodate a holistic ambiance for its association and those enrolled in its programs. He said not abandoned is Cassista generous, he’s additionally dependable and fosters accord amid those whom Lighthouse serves.

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“He abandoned promotes the admiration in bodies to assignment harder and serve able-bodied in the community. He’s humble, adjustable and caring — and what that does is accommodate a admiration for others to additionally serve able-bodied and to appetite to actor what he does,” he said.

For allotment of his Lighthouse workweek, Cassista arranges items in the Lighthouse Ministries Lakeland Ancestors Store, 711 N. Florida Ave. During a contempo workday, he met with Samuel Crumpton, at one time abandoned and now a Lighthouse resident. He said he’s accepted the Cassistas for about seven years and was at one time a almsman of their generosity while sitting out the canicule and nights in Munn Park.

“He aeroemism over astern to ability out and advice bodies and he does it all from the heart,” said Crumpton, 61. “That’s a acceptable man appropriate there. He didn’t aloof advice me, he’s helped so abounding people.”

Cassista and his ancestors plan to be out in the association today and anniversary Christmas Day in the future.

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“For what I’ve been through, it’s a accurate absolution to be able to advance in added people’s lives. You get to the point in activity you see it’s not all about you and let go of that. You acquisition added claimed beatitude advance in added people’s lives, that’s the absolute spirit of Christmas.”

Paul Catala can be accomplished at [email protected] or 863-802-7533. He can be accomplished at Twitter @pcat0226.

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