Women of Charity
Setting a Place at the Table for Everyone
Those who work in the non-profit sector do so because they are eager to make a difference in the world.
A recent report from the Women’s College of the University of Denver found that women make up 75% of the nonprofit workforce, in contrast to the for profit business world where there are only 20 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The women who dedicate their careers to the nonprofit sector speak the language of charity. Their generosity, humility and grace give them purpose in their day-to-day challenges, while as leaders, they are resourceful strategists and logistical experts. When non-profit organizations succeed in closing the gap in social services, even the most disadvantaged among us have the chance for a better life.
This holiday season and all year long, Theresa Lowe, Barzella Papa, Cathyann Solomon and Marcia Conwell are setting a place at the table for those in need within our community. As we give thanks for our many blessings, we want to honor those who have made it their life’s work to end hunger, homelessness and despair in Gainesville.
Alachua County Coalition for the Homeless and Hungry and GRACE Marketplace
Ending homelessness in Alachua County is all about being flexible and accommodating to the needs of individuals. Since 2002, the Alachua County Coalition of the Homeless and Hungry has been doing just that. The 2014 opening of GRACE Marketplace (Gainesville Region Alachua County Empowerment) was a giant step in the right direction, offering temporary housing and centralized social services. Executive Director, Theresa Lowe leads the charge at GRACE Marketplace, with the ultimate goal of moving homeless individuals into permanent living situations. A self-proclaimed fixer, Lowe says it is important to her that she makes a difference every day and leaves everything a little more organized and prettier than she found it. Under Lowe’s leadership, GRACE Marketplace has been transformed from a medium security prison to a village of hope.
The multipurpose 25-acre campus just west of the Gainesville International Airport was purchased for $1.3 million by the City of Gainesville. Another $1 million has been spent on renovations, transforming the property into sanctuary and campground offering free meals, medical care, job training, skill building, mental health services and the opportunity to sign up for food stamps and social security benefits. Dignity Village, the tent encampment on GRACE, houses 155 homeless adults. Children are not allowed to spend the night in Dignity Village for their safety, as no adult is turned away for having a criminal record. Despite the risk of housing so many homeless individuals at the encampment, Lowe says there is a low incidence of crime. “People are so thankful for the chance to be here and be safe that the incidence of altercations amongst residents is rare.”
Since GRACE Marketplace opened, Alachua County has seen a 30% decrease in homelessness and 45% reduction in those who are chronically homeless. Alachua County Coalition of the Homeless and Hungry have moved at least 200 people off the streets and into permanent housing. “When you have nothing or no one, and you become homeless, despair can take over,” Lowe explains. “We offer hope and a way for people to start to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The facility, made up of several cinder block buildings is almost completely renovated, although there are several thousand dollars’ worth of improvements to the medical clinic and basketball court still to be made. Lowe is proud of what the campus has become. “Visitors often comment that it doesn’t look like a typical homeless shelter,” Lowe says. Each building is trimmed in a different bright color and trees continue to be planted to improve the environment, giving it a park-like feel rather than that of an institution. “Our residents have all been through traumatic situations just to get to this point in their life, so we do everything we can do to make things a little softer,” she says.
Around the holidays, those who want to help can do so by filling a pair of socks with toiletries and small food items. Socks, underwear, blankets and towels are always needed as well. Lowe says, “Even if you’re afraid to come to a homeless shelter the stockings are something that really matter to the residents this time of year.”
Catholic Charities Weekend Hunger Backpack Program
When children bully other kids at school or they are angry for no reason, sometimes those kids are really just hungry. To many of Gainesville’s youth without sufficient food available at home, Monday mornings used to mean access to steady meals for the school week. But, since Catholic Charities Weekend Hunger Backpack Program began filling backpacks for hungry children to take home on the weekends, fewer children have been going without meals. Since 2012, under the direction of Associate Director Cathyann Solomon, the program has grown to serve the needs of 700 children in 16 area schools.
The Trinidad and Tobago native started her career as an accountant working for Carnival Cruise Lines, but soon became unfulfilled and asked God to use her to help others. Now, in her sixteenth year with Catholic Charities, she jokes, “sometimes you have to be careful what you ask for.” Solomon is passionate about helping those who are less fortunate and says the more she gives, the more God allows her to keep giving. Deemed the hands and feet of God, Catholic Charities helps whomever is in need, without judgment or regard to their denomination.
In Alachua County, one in four children do not have enough food to eat each day. Lack of access to a nutritious and adequate food supply has implications not only for the development of physical and mental disease, but also behavior and social skills. Food insecurity has been linked with diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular problems, higher levels of anxiety and aggression. It has also been linked with slower development of social skills.
Each week, new applications are received from teachers with hungry children in their classrooms. The signs that children are hungry and that learning is being blocked by hunger include hoarding food, complaining about being hungry, eating food too quickly and consistently asking for more. Once the teacher establishes the need, a consent form needs to be signed by the parent. Solomon says the application process is done confidentially so as not to embarrass families or the students. “If you work a minimum wage job and have to pay rent, power, gas to get to work…sometimes food is way down on the list of priorities. Most parents are trying really hard to provide and are happy to get a little help with groceries,” she says.
Because of the Weekend Hunger Backpack Program each, Friday, children head home with kid friendly foods like applesauce, vegetables and canned soup; enough food for all the children in the family to eat over the entire weekend. Empty backpacks are returned to the schools by Tuesday, and then redelivered to schools before Friday. Solomon says the program is labor intensive and they utilize volunteers every week to pack and deliver the backpacks to area schools. Donations are always welcomed and volunteers, especially before Thanksgiving and Christmas are needed. “We live every day going above and beyond for everyone we can.,” Solomon says. “We are the vessel and He is using us to do His good work. The more you are open to help, the more you get that chance and I pray every day, ‘Lord use me today.’ And believe me, I do get some weird phone calls.
President and CEO
Community Foundation of North Central Florida
The Community Foundation of North Central Florida is a non-profit organization serving the communities of our region by promoting and facilitating philanthropy. Dedicated to strengthening relationships among charitable organizations, donors and concerned citizens who want to invest in the welfare of the community, this organization has been lead for over 10 years by Barzella Papa, the president and CEO. “We support charitable giving and encourage people to give back. We then work with them to make sure the money goes where it should go, navigating the filing, accounting and becoming stewards of that money.”
The Community Foundation of North Central Florida currently manages $16 million in funding and distributes about $2.5 million dollars each year to worthy organizations. Charitable gifts that have been passed through the Foundation include a million-dollar donation to build Fisher House, a million-dollar donation to Peaceful Path and $1.5 million to deliver mental health services in Alachua County schools. Papa says that oftentimes the donations are given anonymously through endowment. “Usually the donors we work with have had something very personal happen to them or a member of their family and they want to help a specific charity. We help them find the right charity to make the greatest impact in the community,” Papa explains.
When Papa was in college, she wanted to work in New York for a fashion magazine. She finished her degree at the University of Alabama and moved to Washington DC., working for Southern Living and Time Life Books. There, she met her husband and later they relocated to Gainesville where she became heavily involved in the community. When her first child was an infant, Papa made the choice to forgo her dream job when she received an offer from Health magazine to be their fashion and beauty editor. Papa turned the page on an old dream and instead saw that raising her family and giving back to the community was her calling.
Papa used her dogged determination and creativity honed in her publishing career to organize fundraisers, and volunteered through the Junior League of Gainesville, ultimately serving as president of the organization. When the Community Foundation launched a search for an Executive Director, Papa won the job. Her first task was to form a women’s giving circle and more duties followed. Her position was the first full time paid role at the foundation, and since 2006 Papa has had her finger on the pulse of the non-profit sector. The foundation works with organizations throughout the year, hosting networking and training events and leverages deep seeded relationships to find worthy charities in need of donations.
Over the past decade, under Papa, the Community Foundation of North Central Florida has donated more than $10 million, and that women’s giving circle she established, now 181 women strong, has donated $850,000, impacting 26 local organizations. “Every year, there is always something new that our donors want to do. Seeing our donors give back to their causes is the best part about this job,” she says.
Bread of the Mighty Food Bank
Bread of the Mighty Food Bank is the centralized organization that gathers and distributes food to 172 agencies in five counties, including and surrounding Alachua County. Anyone who is in need, without proof of income, can receive food. Through a network of volunteer based programs, community pantries and mobile deliveries, Bread of the Mighty is meeting hunger where it lives and working tirelessly to end it. Marcia Conwell has been the CEO for ten years and has overseen the development of Kids Café, a food pantry in area schools, and Gainesville Harvest, whose 80 volunteers pick-up food from local supermarkets and restaurants. In 2015, eight-million pounds of food was distributed, and so far, they have served 6.9 million meals this year alone.
For the forgotten, the seniors, the children and the disadvantaged, Bread of the Mighty sometimes serves as the primary food source; a fact Conwell says she learned about in 2004. At that time, she was a single mom raising four girls on a server’s wage. She was volunteering at Bread of the Mighty and delivering food to a distribution point in Otter Creek. “On that day, I was hot and sweaty and impatient and decided I was going to start my route instead of waiting on a shipment of bread to arrive, “ she said.
Conwell got done delivering food in Bronson and then headed to Otter Creek where 50 people usually met her to pick up food each month. “They come from nowhere and meet us in this big field. Most of them are on foot. We would bag groceries on picnic tables.” Conwell had gotten to know one client, Mrs. Rainwater over the prior months and always looked forward to seeing the elderly woman, dressed in 1940s style bonnet and long dress. On this day, as usual, Mrs. Rainwater’s oxygen tank was wrapped in a blanket that she pulled behind her in a three-wheeled wagon.
After her bags were filled, Conwell hugged her and wished her well. Conwell recounts, “She just stood there and said, ‘you forgot my bread.’ I told her I was really sorry but there was no bread today. This old, frail woman just started sobbing and trembling and was bent over with despair. I asked her what was wrong and she looked up at me with tear filled eyes that I will never forget and said, ‘Marcia, you don’t understand. You give me a loaf of bread and I freeze it and save it for a month. I eat a half slice for breakfast and half for lunch with peanut butter. If I don’t have that bread I won’t eat breakfast and lunch for the next month.”
Conwell was crushed at the woman’s response to a missing loaf of bread. This was the face of hunger and she had it all wrong. Preventing a minor inconvenience for her to wait on that bread meant an 87 years old piano teacher would be hungry for a month. Conwell immediately sent a volunteer to the nearest store to buy as much bread as the ten-dollar bill in her pocket would buy. The volunteer came back with three loaves of bread. Of course Mrs. Rainwater knew what being hungry meant and refused to take an entire loaf home. Instead, she separated the loaves to share with her friends. Conwell says that until that day, she didn’t know hunger like that and from that day forward, she was 100% committed to shorten lines, and feed hungry people.