Back on his feet, feeding those who aren't
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 4:54 p.m.
SARASOTA - Walter Rusin is not getting rich selling $3.25 hamburgers at Janina's BBQ, not in this economy.
Restaurant owner Walter Rusin served up Thanksgiving Dinner this morning to
about 250 people at the Resurrection House day shelter for the homeless in
In 2001, the Resurrection House helped Rusin and his family with money the
charity received through the annual Season of Sharing campaign that helps
families in need. Rusin’s family was homeless for a short time, and needed
help paying bills.
Today, Rusin owns Janina’s BBQ at 3430 N. Tamiami Trail.
- Janina's BBQ and Resurrection House map | Graphics
But he is certainly better off than he was five years ago, when he was jobless, nearly homeless, flat broke and worried sick. In those days, after he got laid off and evicted, Walter moved with his wife and daughter into a motel on North Tamiami Trail.
The thing that hurt most was wondering how in the world he would feed them all in the morning.
He has not forgotten that feeling, which is the reason why the burgers at his restaurant are cheap, and why he puts a homeless man to work holding a sign out front of Janina's, and why he will cook a huge Thanksgiving dinner today for 300 homeless people at Resurrection House.
"Look, I'm like everybody else counting my pennies," he says. "But when you've been there, when you know what it feels like to wonder if you can feed your children, you have to do something."
Today's dinner at the Resurrection House will set Rusin back $600. There will be turkey, stuffing, gravy, bread, pie. The works. When he first approached the shelter about cooking dinner, he figured there would be 150 people or so.
The number quickly jumped to 200, then 250.
The need, says Resurrection House's Bill Wilson, is as great as ever. Several years ago, when Rusin was out of work, Resurrection House helped him get back on his feet. With the dinner, Rusin is trying to pay it back.
"When people succeed, we rarely ever see them come back. That's what makes Walter so unique," Wilson said.
Getting knocked down was not new in the Rusin family.
Nor was it all that surprising that Rusin got back up.
Rusin's family is from Poland, and he was the first to be born in America. His grandfather, a farmer, was killed by the Nazis after he refused to hand over all his livestock.
He was raised in New York, where his father worked at Stumer's bakery.
A few years back, Rusin moved with his wife to Fort Myers. He got a job with a janitorial company and worked his way up to supervisor, which was a big deal because the company seemed to have big plans.
Then the company lost its contract with a major business. They were laying people off. Already living paycheck to paycheck, Rusin could not afford his rent, his electricity bill, even his car registration.
The family moved to a motel. The money ran out.
His daughter, Samantha, remembers being embarrassed and telling white lies to her friends at school.
"I would be like, 'No I can't come over today,'" Samantha recalls. "You don't want people to see you like that."
One day, someone recommended the Resurrection House.
It was the not first time the charity group footed a motel bill or a utility bill payment. The group put the Rusins up for three weeks, long enough for him to find a job at a fast food restaurant in Bradenton.
He had a car, but could not afford the registration.
So he walked until his shoes wore through. Then he put cardboard in the bottom.
Rusin worked his way up to manager.
He took side jobs on the weekends, or at night, or whenever he could land one: Carpet washer. Window cleaner. Plumber. Landscaper.
Three months ago, he saved enough to open Janina's, in a strip plaza on North Tamiami Trail, right up the street from the Day's Inn where his family slept when he was penniless.
The restaurant is right next to a liquor store and a Kwik-Mart. When he first moved in, he had to clean up needles and condoms along the front stoop. But the food is cheap and word is slowly getting out.
And he hardly ever turns anyone away.
On occasion, the Resurrection House will send over a family living in one of the nearby motels for a hot meal late at night.
Or a woman comes by looking gaunt and sickly and Rusin, knowing full well what it is like to go hungry, will give her an order of french fries.
Or he will put together a feast for 300 people down on their luck, just like he was.
"Because I know what it feels like."