USF students host picnic for Syrian refugees

Students Organize for Syria (SOS) hosted a picnic for refugee children and families to kick off the sunny April weather. The University of South Florida organization used to focus on advocating awareness and activism about Syria, but when many Syrian refugees came to Florida, the group shifted to catering to their needs.

“This year, we focus most on integrating the refugee families that are in Tampa into our communities,” said Nour Shahout, president of the USF organization.

SOS often collaborates with Radiant Hands, a local help agency that focuses on women and children empowerment. The organization is centered on immediate help as well as providing long-term sustainability and self-sufficiency programs for those who reach out to them.

The volunteers tutor students in a center from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Earlier in 2018, they added an additional location to accommodate elementary students too. There are  now students from first through 10th grade.

The picnic was a way for the tutors to interact with the children without being in a classroom setting. They also wanted to introduce them to new field games.

“At the picnic, we played games. Growing up in the United States, we’re very familiar to them,” said Shahout. “But for refugees that are coming from Syria, they’re not familiar with the three-legged race, hula hoop chain or sponge relay.”

Most of the families do not have transportation, so many of the volunteers drove them to the event, which was held at Riverfront Park. Because transportation is difficult, organizers said it’s hard to have all the children socialize together at the same time. Events like this take SOS weeks to plan and coordinate.

“It’s very rewarding, and you can just tell the kids are very grateful and very happy to see that there’s people, there’s a group of young people that really care and are willing to help them,” Shahout said. “When we go out, either if we’re going to drop something off at their house, or we’re you know tutoring them we have more of a personal relationship with them.”

The children got to let out a lot of their energy with students they see as mentors and role models.

“Most of us are college students, so we can relate to them, we are like their friends,” Shahout said. “We treat them like our younger siblings. They feel loved, they feel cared, and they feel like they want to excel and do their best.”

Another board member, Nour Bitar, was pleased with the turnout.

“It was a ton of fun for everybody,” said Bitar. “It’s just so satisfying when in the end of the day, you go and ask these kids ‘was there anything we lacked or need to improve on?’ And they give you a big smile and they say no it was so fun it was perfect thank you guys so much for doing this. That smile just keeps you going, recharges your battery, and makes you want to put in more work and never stop helping these people.”

Clearwater police officer brings bicycles to kids

A Clearwater police officer is making sure every kid at Sandy Lane Elementary has a ride to school through local donations.

Officer James Frederick Jr. is what the Clearwater Police Department likes to call a “community champion.” He brings bicycles to students in need or simply to reward their good behavior.

“It provides hope to these kids, so, by being able to give them a bike and when they’re smiling,” said Officer Frederick. “It just says for that moment in time that they won something. Someone cares about them enough to say you special, you’re being brought out in the middle of school to be given a bike.”

He receives the bikes from a local Walmart. The partnership started around Christmas time when Walmart reached out to the Clearwater Police Department to inform them that they had a few extra bikes. The Police Department took the bikes off their hands and started the program at Sandy Lane Elementary.

Some of the bikes that Walmart gave to Officer Frederick were in need of repairs. He brought them to a local bike shop to get them back into working condition.

“It’s a good partnership that I have with the school,” said Officer Frederick. “The administrators there, also Ms. Rivera, we talk often and she’s able to say, ‘Hey I have two kids that are coming in or such and such.’ Then I’m able to kind of link them up with the bikes we have.”

Not all of the bikes came from Walmart. Many have been donated by people from the Clearwater community.

As rewarding as the bike may be to a student, it seems like Officer Frederick enjoys the gift of giving just as much.

“It makes me feel great,” said Officer Frederick. “It brings me back to when I was a kid, and I remember all the little tricks I did when I got my bike, and jumping over ramps and different things like that.”

Officer Frederick thinks it would be beneficial for the youth if it could be more of an event.

“It will also be good too to have the community with us when we give out the bike,” said Officer Frederick. “The more the merrier. These kids, they are kids, and they are impressionable and sometimes being able to have the community centered around us, as police officers, as we give this bike away to the kid would be pretty cool.”

Besides attending the bike presentation, there are other ways of showing support for the program. The Clearwater Police Department says they could always use more bikes and people with the skills to repair them. Donors are welcome to bring their bikes to the station and they will be passed along to Officer Frederick.

The Lights Fest makes Florida debut

For the first time ever, The Lights Fest and its incredible lantern launch took to the skies in the Sunshine State.

Over the past two weekends, the worldwide festival made its first stop in Florida at the Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City. Originally starting in Utah, The Lights Fest now spans across the United States and Europe. Each location includes food, games and live performances from local artists across the globe. It is a celebration for family and friends as well as a way to find closure and peace. Event Director Tiffany Townsend believes the festival is a way to put troubling matters to bed.

“The Lights Fest is special because it allows people to have closure about certain things,” Townsend said. “What happened in Florida, last week with the school shooting. Some people have bought tickets just to get closure about that, and really that’s what the company is about; giving people closure, giving people hope, giving them a chance to say goodbye to loved ones, and to pray for their loved ones if they’re injured or whatever it may be. So, it’s just a really good chance for people to think about their lives and basically look back at the good things and pray for the not so good things.”

The company has made a conscious effort to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Guests are reminded to properly dispose of their bottles and cans. The lanterns are designed for low flight, making them easier to track down and properly throw away. Even if one is lost, the lanterns are biodegradable, allowing them to break down naturally. The Lights Fest has also adopted a “Leave No Trace” policy, promising to leave venues the way they arrived.

While the festival is an all-day event, its well-known lantern launch is the grand finale. Each guest is given his or her own lantern to decorate and design as they please. Many are encouraged to write wishes, prayers and personal goals on their lanterns. Once they are launched, it is a remarkable sight to see. Samuel Malachowski, who acts as the master of ceremonies during the lantern launch, knows what the spectacle means to its guests.

“The main attraction why people come is for the lantern launch,” Malachowski said. “Just like what people have seen in the movie Tangled, you know it’s something seriously amazing, and it can become quite spiritual and very emotional for people. So, that’s what brings people to the event, and we’re just trying to leave good vibes, a good atmosphere for everyone to hopefully leave as a better person.”

For those interested in the event, The Lights Fest is planning to make Florida a regular stop with four planned events annually. The next two dates this year will be sometime in the fall. Cities such as Jacksonville, Gainesville and Tallahassee have already pre-registered to host future events. With The Lights Fest now touching base in the Tampa Bay area, it is encouraged that people experience the event first-hand.

“It’s just a really good experience. I think everyone should do it at least once in their lifetime, just because it’s a cool thing to experience. Very spiritual. Magical.”

4th annual Sarasota music marathon a major hit

Runners and spectators alike were treated to a unique musical marathon Sunday morning at the 4th annual Sarasota Music Half Marathon.

The event, which features both 10K and half marathon events through the city of Sarasota, does things a little differently. The race includes live performances from local musical acts scattered throughout the course. The result is a high energy event, drawing adept running and fresh challengers from local areas and abroad to experience the sights and sounds of Sarasota.

The course began at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, leading runners through local areas such as St. Armands Circle, along the Sarasota Bayfront and over the Ringling Bridge. Along the course, 18 bands ranging in genre from rock and soul to reggae and marching bands played for four hours, offering encouragement and ambiance to runners—and a free show for spectators.

Beginning at 6:30 a.m., runners had four hours to finish the 13.1 mile half marathon course and return back to the Van Wezel.  The runners were greeted with an event medal and invited to a festival-style after party, complete with a buffet, beer garden and yet another musical act.

The event, sponsored by Metro Diner, began in 2015 and adds musical acts as a unique twist on the common marathon. This year over 1,700 runners completed the half marathon route.

Attendance was high on the streets as well, despite the early start, as spectators cheered, waved signs and enjoyed the musical stylings being offered right in their own proverbial front yards.

Registration for the 2019 Sarasota Music Half Marathon has already begun and can be found at www.sarasotahalf.com. 

New nonprofit shows the keys to kindness

Keys to Kindness is a nonprofit organization based in the Odessa community. It will open its new storefront Keys to Kindness Gifts, and Gatherings on Feb. 17, 2018. The store will serve as a platform for small businesses and connect the community.

Along with the motto of “be kind,” the slogan of this store is “buy a gift, make a gift, give a gift and be a gift.” Keys to Kindness is known for placing keys out in the community with a note about kindness attached. The founder and executive director, Sharri Cagle, receives help making these keys from her 14-year-old son, who makes them with his 3D printer.

“With the keys that are made, my kids are doing it, other kids are doing it, said Cagle. So, it’s a way for them to give back, and have hands in it. And it has a tag attached to it about kindness. And then we’ll attach them to the birdhouses and put them throughout the community, as well as just having keys placed throughout the community.”

Buying a gift aspect of the store, entails purchasing merchandise from small businesses that sell their products in the store.

“We really wanted to give it a hometown feel, said Cagle. So, we have different vendors in here from students that graduated last year and it’s their first year in college, who started up their own business, it’s incredible and inspiring. To a Navy seal who makes the most beautiful wood pieces. There is a neighborhood friend that makes candles and soaps, and a mom, who is helping put her kids through college, and makes fabric pieces, like dog collars and leashes. I like it cause it’s a good variety. Each gift is an intentional gift and has a meaning to it.”

The making a gift aspect of the gifts and gatherings shop allows customers to come in and paint or create a personal gift for themselves or someone on their mind. There are lots of wooden birdhouses, jewelry boxes, and other items that can be painted in the store. “And with the make a gift, you’ll get a free birdhouse; which is another way of us giving back to the community, and you get to paint it and we put it out in the community for you with a tag attached with one of our keys.”

Giving a gift and being a gift is also what the store gives customers the opportunity to do. The store gives the gift of holding workshops for book clubs, birthday parties and groups of all ages. It also is an important environment for Keys to Kindness to hold pet therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD or kids with special needs. The opening of a storefront will not only give Keys to Kindness an actual home for all their “kind causes” but will help people of the community be a gift of kindness to everyone around.

“Our grand opening falls on national kindness day, and we are asking the community to come together and help us put out 2,018 acts of kindness out in the community. So, when they show up they will get a free kind gift, and that’s one act of kindness being shared, and if they bring tennis shoes which is what we are collecting for those in need, that is another act of kindness. So, we are hoping to do 2,018 acts of kindness in one day.”

Come out anytime between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17. The address is 8738 north Mobley Rd, Odessa FL to join all the grand opening activities. You can check out all the small business’ products throughout the store and get to meet the rescue dog, Sadie. There will be a bounce house and fun activities for kids, raffles and free kind gifts for adults and food catered by, Three Brothers pizza and Fro. Dough. You will not want to miss this out!

All media and story information, by Deanna Salt.

Lessening the environmental footprint

TradeWinds Island Grand Resort on St. Pete Beach is known for its eco-friendly presence in the community. From reusable hand towels in the restrooms to air-conditioning units that automatically turn off when a patio door is opened, the beach resort lives by the Green Lodging lifestyle.

TradeWinds employee, Jessica Leonard, is taking that to a whole new level. In June, Leonard created the TradeWinds Eco Team (TWEC).

Jessica Leonard helped create the TradeWinds Eco Team geared toward lessening TradeWinds Island Grand Resort’s environmental footprint.photo by Courtney Aurich

Leonard is an internal communications and training coordinator at the resort. She is mainly responsible for the employee culture side of Human Resources. Part of her job includes enrolling employees in the Habitat for Humanity program. She’s in charge of getting TradeWinds employees to volunteer 200 hours building a house for another employee in need. Leonard is also an active volunteer and enjoys making a difference in the community and in the environment

“I value people. I think if somebody else is in need and I have … or if I can provide for myself and someone else can’t, who am I to not help them?” said Leonard.

Leonard often gives her change to war vets begging in the street. She has picked up the tab for a homeless man at local buffet. She finds joy in helping others.

Leonard’s generosity dates back to volunteering at a local animal shelter when she was a teenager

“They always needed your parents to go and it was really hard before 16,” said Leonard. She would push her mom to come with her, just as she pushes people at work at Habitat for Humanity.

Familiar with her inspiring ways, Leonard’s co-worker, Sophie Bajack, proposed the idea of starting a beach cleanup on St. Pete Beach.

“I shut her down right away,” said Leonard. “There’s not enough trash on this beach to make a tangible result. People are going to pick up two straws, and be like, ‘why the hell did I wake up early and come out to this?’ I said no.”

She did like the eco-friendly concept, however, and the idea of helping the environment. From that, the TWEC was born.

The TWEC, as described on the organization’s Facebook page, is an organization that plans to “lessen the footprint they leave on the environment” through education, teamwork and outreach. TWEC attempts this by preserving wildlife and maintaining clean waters.

Leonard and Bajack are the founders of the TWEC with TradeWinds is the sponsor. TradeWinds provides meeting spaces, snacks and merchandise giveaways for the organization and partner, Keep Pinellas Beautiful, donates gloves, safety equipment and cleaning supplies.

“There’s food. You get a free T-shirt that says, ‘Eco Team’ on it. It’s completely free,” said Leonard.

Recently, TWEC adopted its first sea turtle nest which will hatch anywhere from 68-102 eggs. They have also created their own beach cleanup that takes place twice a month.

The first beach cleanup was June 8.

“We picked up 68.9 pounds,” said Jessica. “We had like 25 garbage bags full. It was horrifying.”

Since then, TWEC has hosted beach cleanups every second Tuesday and fourth Saturday of the month. Pickups take place from 8-11 a.m. Volunteers begin at the TradeWinds Island Grand property and end at Guy Harvey Outpost Resort. Volunteers are as young as 7 years old and any employee or community member can attend.

“Last cleanup, we found a fire extinguisher, a knife, and a rolled-up dollar bill for — it was definitely a drug-related paraphernalia. You find a lot of condoms and just weird stuff,” said Leonard.

Eco team member, Victor Cifuentes, 28, believes in “lessening footprints” on and off the beach. At the bar where he works, he cuts six-pack rings before throwing them into the trash. Cifuentes worries the plastic rings will eventually end up on the beach and hurt sea life.

“You got to respect where you live,” said Cifuentes.

 

Little League children taught to succeed off field

Bianco Berry (left) and his daughter, London. Photo by Katie Ebner

The vice president of Progress Village Little League teaches children more about life than baseball in hopes of inspiring a misunderstood community.

Progress Village was created less than 60 years ago—before the height of the civil rights movement—to give black people an affordable community to call home. Only a railroad track separated it from the Klu Klux Klan, who terrorized members of the new community.

Progress Village changed a lot over the years, but it still fights a bad reputation from its drug problems and murders that seem to be the only reasons the community makes the news.

Little League Vice President Bianco Berry, however, sees Progress Village differently than outsiders. Though he did not grow up there, the tight-knit community enjoys a rich storytelling culture, which is how he learned about its history.

“Just to hear the old stories is really, it’s almost like, you growing up, you wasn’t always here, but you always feel like you was always involved in the community,” said Berry.

Berry started volunteering with the Little League when he moved to Tampa in 2006. His passion for giving back to the community and being a positive influence for his children and the children he coaches earned him a spot on the Little League board, and eventually the title as vice president.

During his stint as vice president he coached both of his children, and even coached his daughter’s softball team when it won the district championship two years ago. His daughter, London, 11, cherishes her relationship with her dad for more than what they have accomplished on the field together.

“Many people don’t have a dad that can just tell them that, ‘oh you’re amazing, you’re worth it in life,’ so I just feel like respected that like I have someone that is there for me that can tell me that,” said London.

She credits the Little League for playing a big role in teaching children like her valuable life lessons.

“I think that kids can develop great leadership because Progress Village, we hold a lot of like activities for the children to do, just to get involved more, and also it gives the kids like new opportunities to learn something new, and to experience things off of others,” said London.

His primary focus is not winning games. It’s helping children learn how to achieve great things beyond Little League Baseball.

“We’re trying to teach you the game, trying to teach you the fundamentals, trying to teach you this is how life is,” said Berry.

As one of the league’s leaders, Berry wants players to recognize the importance of working together.

“We try to give you the tools that’s not necessary to succeed in sport but to succeed in life as well,” said Berry. “This has to be like a team organization. You got to have teamwork when you go to your job, you got to have a team, got to be able to rely on others, you try to teach them it’s not always about ‘me me me.'”

He also emphasizes the importance of giving at-risk children a positive atmosphere to learn and grow, instead of falling into bad habits.

“[We] try to teach them to be respectful of everyone, and just try to provide a safe and fun environment for them to come out and do stuff, and not have to be always in the streets, always doing something negative,” said Berry. “Try to turn something negative, and try to make them keep, keep a positive attitude.”

Bianco and London spoke to WUSF as part of its “Telling Tampa Bay Stories” radio series. Photo by Katie Ebner

Berry teaches his own children these same values. On every family vacation, he and his wife take their children to different universities wherever they visit to show their kids what they can achieve if they continue to work hard and be positive influences on others. These trips gave his daughter a new perspective, and inspired her to make a difference in others’ lives.

” … Until like a few years ago I didn’t really realize that most people don’t exactly get like I have,” said London. “[I’m] able to do stuff in life, [and] not always [be] one of those people who’s always down. I can always stay positive.”

According to Berry, both of his children exemplify the values he tries to teach Little League players, and he could not be more proud of them. His daughter talks about how she stands up for kids who get bullied at school, and how she is involved with Sisters Network—an organization that raises awareness for African-American women impacted by breast cancer. One day, she wants to be a doctor or professional athlete.

“I mean, she’s a pleasure,” said Berry about his daughter. “Both my kids are, so I’m just happy trying to do the right thing by them, make sure they can be productive citizens in life.”

Tampa Fire Museum gives back

On March 1, 1908, Tampa experienced the largest fire in its history. Cottages, factories and stores were burned down to ashes and two thousand people were left homeless.

The fire was discovered inside a boarding house in Ybor City. Before the volunteer firefighters came, many homes and businesses were already destroyed. The flames were extremely difficult to control.

“Everything was built out of wood,” said Joy Bunch, employee for the Tampa Fire Museum. “Back then trying to get it contained, they just couldn’t get ahead of it. When it was all said and done, it burned 55 acres and 17 city blocks.”

According to Bunch, city officials decided to rebuild everything destroyed by importing brick. This decision was also the reason why the Tampa Fire Museum is made out of brick.

Built in 1911, the museum was originally the headquarters for the Tampa Fire Department (TFD) until 1974.  Now the museum holds all the history of TFD and the Tampa Fire Rescue (TFR). Everyday visitors come in not only to learn about the history of both departments, but also to learn more about safety education and fire prevention. The museum is free of charge but donations are accepted and appreciated.

“We have an area for kids to play in,” said Scott Mays, a local firefighter. “We also have a couple of trucks and things like that for people to see. We also have a store where we sell memorabilia and other firefighter stuff and museum items as well.”

One part of the museum contains fire truck exhibits. One truck, nicknamed the “Little Mack” can still be used in a fire today if need be, but it’s mostly used for personal events such as parades and funerals. The truck was sold to TFD in 1949 for $13,884. It was last served in Firehouse Station Three.

Close by the fire trucks, one will see how the firefighters’ uniforms have changed over the years. During the 1920s and 1960s, firefighters wore less gear than the one’s today. You will see that in earlier decades, they wore a helmet, bunker pants, boots, quick-close fasteners and held a pick-headed axe. Now they’ve replaced the axe with a hose and added reflective strips, gloves, goggles, a face piece and more. According to the museum, the total amount of gear a firefighter wears adds another 75 pounds to their weight.

TFD originally consisted of volunteer firemen. The first volunteer company was created in 1885 and 10 years later the department became a paid company.

“The city budget was $18,000,” said Bunch. Bunch has been working for the museum ever since her son, Matt Bunch, passed away due to a rare cancer. He was a firefighter that was stationed across the street from the museum. He served the community for nearly 6 years.

“Tampa Fire Rescue supported him and our family,” she said. “While it was a very short battle, they were just tremendous to our family and still are. I started volunteering here and then they offered me a position.”

There is a room where visitors can pay their respects to the local firefighters that have passed away. Near the memorial room there is also an exhibit in honor of the firefighters that passed away saving lives on 9/11.

The museum also welcomes guests to host special events such as birthday parties, retirement functions and weddings.

“We do all types of events here at the museum,” said Mays. Before becoming a firefighter, Mays worked for the museum and stopped by occasionally to help out when needed. “We also do community things when we just have folks come in from the street for tours.”

Educating the community on fire safety is one of the goals of the museum. They wish to educate as many people as they can, especially children. This is one of the reasons why there is no charge to enter.

“We try to give fire prevention, what to do in a fire, things like that…where we don’t want to charge people for that information,” said Mays. “We want people to be able to get that information without having to pay for it because we feel that it is necessary and extremely important that people understand what to do during a fire.”

The museum has been designated a “local historical landmark” by the City of Tampa Architectural Review Historic Designation Division. You can visit on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

“Besides the stop, drop and roll…get out and stay out,” said Mays. He says that is the best tip he can give to people who may not know what else to do in case of a fire. “If there is something left in there, let the firefighters know.”

For more information visit www.tampafirefightersmuseum.org

Camp Kesem helps kids impacted by cancer

Camp Kesem at Florida State University is gearing up for its annual Make the Magic event, which benefits the kids at the camp.

According to the nonprofit’s mission statement, it is a “nationwide community, driven by passionate college student leaders, that supports children through and beyond their parent’s cancer.”

The organization has over 3,000 student leaders at over one hundred colleges across the U.S. The camp reached 6,000 kids in 2016 alone, 65 of which came from the chapter at FSU.

Make the Magic – a fundraiser geared toward making the camp free – will include a cocktail hour, a formal dinner and speeches from leaders at all levels of the organization. Guests will be able to connect with camp counselors and participate in activities related to the camp.

Last year’s Make the Magic event raised over $6,000. With more time and resources dedicated to advertising and marketing, the organization has plans to nearly double that amount this year.

“Last year was definitely a successful fundraiser but we know we can do better,” said Zack Tregoe, Camp Kesem’s FSU branch co-director. “With repeat donors and the growth of Kesem we want to reach a donation goal of $11,000.”

Zack Tregoe, originally from Tampa, is a co-director for Camp Kesem at FSU. Photo/campkesem.org/fsu

Proceeds from each event go straight to the campers themselves, ensuring that every child who attends the camp is doing so for free. Each counselor must raise at least $500, which is then combined.

The camp itself is six days and five nights that include activities from sports to arts and crafts. The camp provides an escape for children dealing with the impacts of cancer on their family.

The camp encourages open dialogue through the Empowerment Ceremony. At the ceremony, campers are encouraged to talk about why they are there. Campers all share that one or both of their parents have been affected by cancer to some degree.

This includes parents who are actively battling cancer, are a cancer survivor or have lost their battle. This ceremony works to bring campers together.

“My favorite event at the camp is Wow-Pow-Chow, something we do every night,” Tregoe says.

Wow-Pow-Chow (WPC) is a part of Cabin Chat, a large group discussion focused on that specific day. The ‘wow’ is for the best part of the day, the ‘pow’ is for the worst part of the day and the ‘chow’ is for the best food of the day.

“I love the way WPC is able to give every camper a voice, but it also helps us in bettering the camp for the future,” Tregoe said. “When feedback from a certain activity is positive, we know to emphasize it the next year. If the feedback is just so-so, we either replace it or ask our campers how to improve it.”

Make the Magic will take place March 4, 2017. Those looking to attend will be able to purchase tickets for $50 at campkesem.org/fsu.

Help from local hurricane relief group extends to Puerto Rico

TAMPA— Members of the community have united to form Decentralized Response, a grassroots response coalition, in the wake of the environmental and economic devastation caused by hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Decentralized Response previously operated under the title Irma Decentralized Response. The name was changed when the group’s relief effort extended beyond hurricane Irma.

Volunteers have supplies sent to a three-bedroom house in Tampa that they call the hub.  They store goods there and distribute them statewide.  The group is even planning a relief trip to Puerto Rico.

Pictured left is one of the rooms in the response hub. The whole house holds a variety of relief supplies that volunteers distribute in the hurricane relief packs. Photo credit: Decentralized Response Facebook Page

Dezeray Lyn, a woman who assisted in the formation of the response group, discussed the group’s main mission, where they’ve been and where they’re going.

“We are here to feed and supply anyone in the community who needs it,” Lyn said. “We also traveled to Apopka, Immokalee and the Keys to give the community there assistance.”

Lyn is also a co-founder of Mutual Aid Disaster Relief.  According to the Facebook page, MADR is a grassroots network with a mission to provide disaster relief based on the principles of solidarity, mutual aid and autonomous direct action.

Members of MADR and other activists began mobilizing, as the threat of Irma loomed, to help those in need before, during and after the storm. They formed distribution teams to take hurricane packs containing food, water and hygiene products to refugee families days before Irma hit. The group was a saving grace for those trapped in the rain and high winds.

“We received a call to our relief line from someone trapped in the storm,” Lyn said.  “They were stuck on the side of the interstate, and the police said the winds were too high to send anyone to help them, so we sent our people to pick them up.”

Mostly, the poorer communities were without water and power for extended amounts of time after Irma passed. Decentralized Response provided those neighborhoods in need with water, food and even generators, in some cases.

Dezeray Lyn is featured to the left helping with the delivery of goods to citizens in the Florida Keys. Photo credit: Justin Garcia

Lyn and activists also traveled to Apopka and Immokalee to provide relief. Apopka residents found themselves without power for many days in their small, farming community. It was loosely estimated that 70 percent of the citrus crop was lost during the storm.

Immokalee was hit harder by Irma than many other parts of Florida. More help was needed, so the Coalition of Immokalee Workers worked hard to receive and distribute goods. The town of migrant farmers didn’t have power for weeks and lost a major portion of their crops. Some even lost their homes.

Relief efforts continue.  However, the aid priority of Puerto Rico and other islands has made itself apparent.  The Decentralized Response crew is gearing up to make a trip to the devastated island.

“We are leaving on a weeklong trip to Puerto Rico on October 12,” Lyn said.

Their goal is to help people in need after hurricane Maria. They will distribute relief goods that are being collected in a shipping container before the trip. It should be there when they arrive.

This is a donation flier from Decentralized Response that lists the products needed to be collected and distributed to the victims of the hurricanes. Photo credit: Decentralized Response Facebook Page

Members of Decentralized Response feel that state efforts are not enough considering the destruction in Puerto Rico.

“We must demand that they do more, but also help as a community however we can,” Lyn said.

 

 

 

USF’s Muslim Students Association and Rise Against Hunger work together

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, the Muslim Students Association at the University of South Florida held an event in conjunction with Rise Against Hunger to package nutrient rich meals that will be distributed communities who suffer from hunger.

In 2016, there were roughly 793 million people who did not have an adequate amount of food. That is one in nine people who do not receive the sufficient amount of nutrients needed to live a healthy life. The MSA at USF is working with Rise Against Hunger, not to reduce that number, but to eradicate world hunger completely.

Rise Against Hunger is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending world hunger by 2030 through grassroots community empowerment. They partner with communities and local organizations to raise money to sponsor meals, and then hold volunteer based events to pack them. They then distribute the nutrient packed meals to in need communities around the world. The packaged meals consist of hearty portions of soy, protein, grains, and vegetables.

Ryan Elfallah, president of Muslim Students Association, at the Stop World Hunger event.

“I have worked with Rise Against Hunger for three years in a row, and I think they are great organization,” said Ryan Elfallah, the president of MSA at USF.

In the months leading to the event, MSA at USF raised money from the surrounding Tampa Bay community. They asked their friends and family to donate, fundraised at local mosques, and asked community members and organizations to sponsor them. Elfallah believes that Muslim involvement in a charitable cause goes hand in hand with Islamic practices.

“In our religion of Islam, one of the core principles is to give food to the poor and those who need it,” said Elfallah.

They ended up with approximately $8,800 in funds raised, enough money to fund nearly 30,000 meals with every meal priced at 29 cents.

The event consisted of stations that were tasked with a specific job. At the first station, volunteers would measure out the correct amount of food into a bag and pass it on to the second station. The second station consisted of volunteers who would weigh the meal bags and add rice if it wasn’t within a certain range. Sealers would then seal the bags and pass them on to people who packaged the meals into boxes which were given to Rise Against Hunger for distribution. Volunteers were dancing to a funky playlist throughout the event.

Attendee and junior at USF, Hajera Bano was humbled by the event.

“This event is so important because it brings people together for a good cause and also raises awareness about the severe food shortages rampant in the world today,” said Bano.

MSA at USF conducted this event last year and packed roughly 15,000 meals. Although they raised more money and were able to get double the amount of volunteers this year, only 20,000 meals were packed due to lack of time.

However, Elfallah still considers this a great success. He also compliments Rise Against Hunger for having the community that raised the money be directly involved with the process.

“Hand packing these meals is different than just raising money or donating it and not seeing…. what you’ve actually accomplished,” said Elfallah. “It makes an impact on you.”

Bano echoes that sentiment. Following all of the natural disasters in the past month, and the devastation they resulted in, Bano felt like she needed to do something productive to help people in need.

Hajera Bano, junior at University of South Florida, weighs the meals.

“I wanted to do something, no matter how little, to counteract the negativity and help the people who don’t have even necessities,” said Bano. “This event helped me because I felt like I was doing something to directly help those who need it.”

Elfallah appreciated that the event gave people a chance to help and encourages more people to work to end world hunger.

“There are people dying from starvation while we are throwing food away,” said Elfallah. “Think about that.”

Local shelter provides safe place for Tampa’s homeless

It’s a homeless shelter run by homeless people. Located on Florida Avenue in Hillsborough County, Homeless Helping Homeless houses dozens of people.

“We are 100 percent donation based, so that limits the amount people we can help,” said marketing and social media coordinator Kristen Ellis. “We’re limited in the things we can do.”

The organization is looking to expand their outreach to at least 36 more beds within the year. Currently, they have room for 18 beds in the main office, and rooms for more people in need at their women’s facility right down the street.

“We don’t take grants because we serve a niche of people that don’t qualify for those grants,” Ellis said.

If they take federal assistance, they would have to drug test their clients and make them meet certain rules. Ellis wants people to know that is not Homeless Helping Homeless’s calling.

“These people have their own journey, though it may be why they’re in this situation. We believe everyone has the right to a safe place to sleep,” Ellis said.

Current client and former heroin addict Celeste Dogmi is a testament to this. Dogmi has been sober for over a year and says it’s because of the homeless shelter.

“I was thrown out of rehab with no place to go,” Dogmi said. “It’s helping me with sober living, food, shelter and stability.”

The organization’s intention is not to change an addict’s lifestyle, but to help in whatever way a client wants them to. But if their help leads to someone getting clean, they consider that a win.

Students work with service organization to give back to community

 

Many students from all over Tampa Bay have joined SALT (Serve and Love Together) and meet every Monday at St. James Church in Tampa to give back to those in need.

Mina Hanna and Maggie Attia are two of the volunteers at the organization, and SALT teaches them about how they can improve the city they live in one week at a time.

“Well this is a wonderful organization as you see it gives back to the community,” Hanna said. “It gives back to the community and we see our fruits produce more fruit.”

Everything is donated from people in the community who are willing to help out.

“We also teamed up with another organization that hands out blankets and toiletries and socks,” Attia said.

SALT partnered with Blanket Tampa Bay and they have access to many necessities to share with those in need throughout the Bay Area.

People like Hanna and Attia truly see the difference that the organization makes on people’s lives every day by talking to people about God and giving them hope. SALT is affiliated with a Coptic youth group in the area.

“There used to be a guy on drugs, and his whole life was messed up, and I cannot tell you how much this organization influenced him. And now this guy is the most spiritual guy you’ll ever meet,” Hanna said.

SALT does a small gesture once a week, but it leaves a lifelong impact on some of these people that they get the pleasure of serving.

To learn more about this organization, please contact Mina Hanna at (727) 333-5318

Feeding Tampa Bay, Home to Those Who Want to Help

Volunteers from all throughout Tampa Bay come out to give back to their community at Feeding America Tampa Bay every week Monday through Saturday.

Volunteers from throughout Tampa Bay come out to give back to their community at Feeding Tampa Bay every week Monday through Saturday.

Feeding Tampa Bay works with smaller organizations such as Metropolitan Ministries and Trinity Café to help distribute food to those in need.

The organization makes it easy for anyone who is willing to help out in the bay area to join.

University of Tampa freshmen, Peter Peirce and Kaelin Willette both volunteer at Feeding Tampa Bay. They learned about the organization through their school and have been coming voluntarily ever since.

“Every time that I’ve come since has been voluntarily just because the first time I did it I enjoyed it so much that I figured I’d keep coming back and it’s always been good to me,” Peirce said.

Feeding Tampa Bay is an enjoyable volunteering environment for all who come.

“I love the energy here, I think everyone that comes here has such a positive energy and vibe and they make it a lot of fun,” Willette remarked.

Megan Carlson the organization’s community engagement manager  has been working for Feeding Tampa Bay for two years now and enjoys her working environment immensely.

“There’s something for everybody and we kind of satisfy every desire that people might have to give back to the community which is really cool,” Carlson said.

To learn more about this organization, visit feedingtampabay.org

 

 

Local Dog Trainers Give Back to Veterans

K-9 Partners for Patriots is not the typical dog training class—veterans are pairing up with pets to help them enter back into civilian life.

Mary Peter, who has over 30 years of experience as a master dog trainer, founded the program a few years ago to help veterans struggling with PTSD and other brain related injuries.

“People would come for obedience training and I started noticing more and more veterans coming back from combat with a dog trying to get into an obedience class,” said Peter.

Before taking the class, veteran Aurthur Moore found it difficult to complete day-to-day activities.

“I would lay in bed all day, said Moore. “I would stay in the house.”

Having gone through the training program, Moore is inspired to help others by studying to become a dog trainer for veterans.

“I want to help other veterans like they’ve helped me,” said Moore. “It makes me feel good helping other people, it helps me feel good inside.”

166 veterans are in or have gone through the program. Similarly, 55 dogs have been rescued and found a new home.

“90 percent of our funding goes directly to our veterans,” Peter said. “We try to save two—a dog and veteran together.”

For Peter, helping veterans is a gift she feels honored to be a part of.

“To see and honor those who have suffered so much in service to our country—it means everything to me,” said Peter. It’s not a job to me, it’s my passion. I love each and every one of these men and women and it’s an honor to serve them and help them.”

Local Café Offers Food For Some, Hope For Others

 

Inside the Box Café and Catering is a social enterprise of the Metropolitan Ministries, providing both vocational training and opportunities for work experience to the less fortunate.

Chef Cliff Barsi founded the culinary school program to help individuals transitioning out of homelessness and poverty learn their trade. The kitchen at Metropolitan Ministries is their classroom, and Inside the Box Café is their training ground.

“The reason we started Inside the Box Café is because I wanted a real life restaurant for them to work in,” Barsi said. “They go out to the cafés, they work on the line with the cooks there so they get that skill of urgency-something that you just don’t learn in a normal culinary school. Then, they go back to the kitchen and they do some practical cooking classes with our chef.”

The 16-week program is funded by JP Morgan Chase Bank. All students that are accepted into the program receive a full scholarship.

Eliu DeLeon is one of those students, preparing to graduate. DeLeon hopes to become a chef at a fine dining restaurant upon leaving Inside the Box.

“A lot of my peers that have already graduated have ended up in a lot of fine dining companies,” DeLeon said.

Chely Figueroa is the catering coordinator at Inside the Box. Before that, though, she had become homeless in 2009.

“I found myself walking 18 miles to this place here, Metropolitan Ministries, to find a safe haven,” Figueroa said.

Barsi called her one day, asking her to run the downtown storefront.

All proceeds from Inside the Box Café and Catering go directly back to Metropolitan Ministries to help others in need.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brooksville Group Coming Together to Help Homeless

People from all over Hernando County came together in a room at The Grande, an assisted living community in Brooksville, to help the homeless.

Dianna Seijas, a resident of Brooksville, is the project coordinator for Mats for a Mission, a volunteer group that makes mats for the homeless out of recycled plastic bags.

“Unfortunately it can happen to anyone, it doesn’t take a lot to change your life overnight,” Seijas said. “We do have a lot of people sleeping in the woods.”

Since starting in January, Mats for a Mission is getting a lot of attention. Volunteers ranging from teenagers to the elderly make up the over 200 members involved in the project.

Carly Nichols, who teaches at Fox Chapel Middle School, can see the benefit of getting her students to become a part of a mission like this.

“I teach sixth to eighth grade and they’re at a time where they are very impressionable, so it’s really important that we build a strong character base for them,” Nichols said.

It takes many hands and about 700 plastic bags to make one mat. From flattening bags, to tying yarn together, it takes a community to be successful.

“Come, volunteer, we have a lot of fun,” Seijas said. “Take it back to your community, we’d be happy to teach you.”

The goal of the group is to have 500 mats made by the end of the year.

“We realize that’s a lofty goal,” Seijas said. “But we have all the confidence in the world in this group and our volunteers that we will meet this goal.”

Mats for a Mission meets Saturday each week from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at The Grande.

 

 

Franchise a way to help center

By Ciara Cummings

TAMPA—This Dairy Queen franchise located on State Road 64 in Brandon works as a charity to financially support the Lakeview Center, a behavioral health and child protective services agency.

“We were on the way home from the golf course when we passed by,” said DQ customer Rita. “It looked like a really nice facility so we decided to stop here for dinner.

Like many customers, she had no clue that this franchise was purchased by Lakeview Associated Enterprises in order to keep their health center in Pensacola afloat.

The center that provides therapy, aid and treatments to abused children and adults who struggle with disabilities, needed some help of their own, more income revenue.

Instead of traditional methods of fundraising, they purchased an ice cream franchise. This Brandon location is just one of the three franchises the Lakeview Associated Enterprises owns. But in the future, they plan to own at least eight Dairy Queens.

All proceeds do in fact go to Lakeview Center, which makes DQ employees more motivated to come to work and perform their best.

Libby, a cashier, says “You come in, it’s not just like a normal job. It’s like you’re working for something and you’re helping out other people.”

Co-worker Hilary Borhas said seeing the customers reactions are even better. “I think the best part about it is when the customers read the plaque and they are motivated to keep coming back because they know their money isn’t just going to some big company.”

The employees receive their paycheck from Lakeview Associated Enterprises. If the store performs well during the quarter, the Enterprise has enough money to support their health center which allows them to take money from elsewhere, like state and federal funding, to support their employees.

 

Annual Christmas tree lighting collects toys for hospitalized children

The Marriott Waterside located in downtown Tampa held its annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony Dec. 1 and invited local vendors to join in the event.

Vendors and guests were asked to bring a toy to donate to the Miracle Children’s Network, a charity that raises funds and awareness for children’s hospitals for providing care for patients and furthering research.

After the event all donated items were gathered and shipped to the different locations for the toys to be dispersed.

“A couple of the local vendors we have out here are the Coppertail Brewing Company and the St. Pete Distillery,” Chris Adkins, the marketing and sales director, said.

The event included music, food and good spirits. There was also a Candy Land themed gingerbread model crafted with over 300 pounds of gingerbread by the pastry chefs from Marriott.

Sinai Vespie, the pastry chef at the event, credited his great team as the key to pulling off such a large event.

Vespie went on to talk about how the whole process started in August, but took until the week of Nov. 21 to start putting it together. The event happens annually on Dec. 1 and each year the theme of the gingerbread model changes.

The Marriott Waterside is located downtown on Old Water Street next to Amalie Arena.

 

 

USF Army Cadet Wins Award for Service in Community

A USF Army ROTC cadet was awarded the Cadet of the Year Award by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce for her service in the community.

Cadet Abby Kingery was selected as the top cadet out of all four service branches of USF ROTC.

“The awards that they give out are more geared towards community service—how military members are contributing to the Tampa Bay area,” said John Sarao, director of the Joint Military Leadership Center at USF.

Kingery contributes in multiple service organizations to help those less fortunate in Tampa Bay. “Faces of Courage” is one of the main programs that she participates in to give back, Kingery said.

“It’s a camp that’s put on for children and adults that suffer from cancer or sickle cell anemia,” Kingery said.

She encouraged others to get involved in selfless service to make a difference.

“It really humbles you,” Kingery said.