Mark R. Howard
Time to serve: Be a community volunteer
Each winter for the past several years, those of us at Florida Trend’s main office have taken half a day to group-volunteer at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, which provides emergency help to people and families who need food, shelter or health care. The clinic operates health and dental clinics, a food bank and food pantry, homeless men’s, women’s and family residences, a community kitchen and several other programs.
Trend’s volunteer project came about thanks to the leadership of Janice Sharp, the associate publisher who manages Trend’s custom publications and marketing. As someone whose good deeds don’t always match his good intentions, I’ve welcomed her initiative and the focus on the Free Clinic in particular.
Over the past several years, we’ve participated in several programs that the clinic operates as it serves some 60,000 people each month — about 6% of the population of Pinellas County. One year, we sorted food donated to the clinic’s food bank. The canned and packaged goods, along with diapers and other items, were then distributed to food pantries, community kitchens and child care centers throughout the county or placed on shelves at the clinic’s pantry. Last year, we helped make a welcoming lunch for residents of a newly opened women’s shelter who were moving in that day.
This year, we participated in an effort called “Pack a Sack.” Organizing ourselves into an assembly line, we filled plastic bags with 12 food items — granola bars, peanuts, ravioli, chocolate milk, water, fruit chews, peanut butter crackers, pudding and the like.
Behind some good-natured teasing about who was creating bottlenecks lay the sobering truth about who would get the small sacks of food — 875 elementary school children around the county who have been identified by their teachers as “food insecure.” That’s the politically correct way of saying that they live in homes so chaotic or dysfunctional that they don’t get enough to eat regularly.
Debbie Sokolov, the clinic’s director of development, explained that while these children are served meals by their schools during the week, many get nothing to eat on the weekends. There may be no parent in the house, or the parent may be indifferent or incapable of caring for the child properly. The clinic and other programs reach a total of about 5,000 of 7,000 children who’ve been identified as food insecure throughout the county.
More wrenching than the image of hungry 9-year-old children fending for themselves each weekend, of course, is the likelihood that at least some of the food meant for children is ending up in the mouths of adults.
After about an hour of dropping single-serve bags of peanuts into plastic bags, the mind tends to wander. At one point, I was struck by the sheer amount of packaging involved in packaged foods — larger boxes, each shrink-wrapped or encased in cellophane, with smaller boxes inside them, likewise encased in packaging, with the individual items in the smaller boxes, likewise encased in their own packages. The level of paper waste generated by the American packaged food stream is massive.
As for nutritional value of the food, well, let’s just say the sugar and salt industries are secure. An apple in each sack would have been nice as part of the picture, but I understand the challenges of handling and storing fruit — and the needs of the kids who get the sacks. The clinic, to its credit, has pushed to get more fresh fruit and vegetables at its food pantry and food bank.
More than anything else, however, filling those food sacks left me with a much deeper appreciation for the significance of institutions like the Free Clinic to their communities — healthy non-profits may be the ultimate mirror in which communities can assess their own accountability to their citizens.
The level of generosity reflected by the St. Petersburg Free Clinic’s operations is astounding: Local grocery stores donated more than 80% of the 4 million pounds of food the clinic distributed last year. Donors contribute more than 80% of the clinic’s annual budget. And the clinic operates with just 37 full-time staffers; some 400 volunteers, ranging from doctors at the clinic to people who help with clerical chores in the office to others who work as sack-packers and bin-sorters, do the bulk of the work.
(Financially, the clinic spends 93 cents of every dollar in its budget directly on services.)
Think about the level of donations and the personal networks of 400 volunteers and you realize quickly how deeply the clinic is woven into the fabric of this community. At a time when a glance at the comments section beneath the internet posting of a news story can make you despair for the future of humanity, the clinic offers a bracing reminder that Americans remain fundamentally decent and generous.
All this is by way of recommending that you, or your workplace, find a deserving local institution and engage in some community-building. If you think you don’t have time, write a check. If you’re retired, find a few friends and volunteer, somewhere. Particularly when the effort goes toward helping with the most fundamental needs another human being can experience, you’ll always get a lot more than you give.