Now more than ever, the local nonprofit organization Hearts, Hands and Hope is filling the gaps to help feed every hungry family in Seminole County
Michelle Wilson, founder of Hearts, Hands and Hope, wants you to know that every day in Seminole County, thousands of children and families go to bed hungry. Access to good-quality food, our most basic human necessity, is not a guarantee in some of our county’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Under normal circumstances, this is a stark reality for many residents in Sanford’s Midway-Canaan community, and they now face even greater strain due to the impact of COVID-19.
“When the pandemic hit, we had to act quickly because we realized this was going to be an ongoing concern,” says Michelle. “We continue to do our regular programs, but we’re focused on the Midway-Canaan area that needs us. If COVID-19 is doing anything positive, it’s shining a spotlight on the great need in our community. When this virus is over, we’ll be here, more determined than ever to help!”
Every week, rain or shine, Hearts, Hands and Hope volunteers go where the need is greatest and set up a distribution site at Midway Safe Harbor Center in Sanford. Thanks to partnerships with the Midway Coalition and Second Harvest Food Bank, thousands of meals are ordered, packaged, and distributed. Since early April, the organizations have delivered more than 40,000 meals to the Midway-Canaan community.
“Some people in these pockets of our community feel like nobody cares about them,” says Michelle. “I don’t want anyone to go through that. That’s why our goal is to continue to grow and reach as many as we can. These partnerships have made an amazing and drastic difference.”
During the coronavirus lockdown, some food staples were especially hard to come by because of hoarding and purchasing restrictions, but Second Harvest Food Bank worked with Hearts, Hands and Hope to make sure families in the Midway-Canaan community could get anything they needed.
For Midway-Canaan residents who either don’t know about the food-distribution events or face transportation challenges that keep them away, dedicated volunteers like Emory Green with the Midway Coalition are a critical component to getting the word out about Hearts, Hands and Hope’s services. Emory knows the ins and outs of the area and can provide direct assistance to those who may be homebound.
“If they can’t get to us, we have service lines in place to get food out to the families,” says Emory, who was born and raised in Midway. He is a University of Central Florida graduate and former professional athlete who now owns his own local marketing firm.
“We’ll load up a trailer or go around in a large golf cart to make in-person deliveries,” says Emory. “Midway is a part of my life, and it’s important that I serve the community I grew up loving and cherishing. Hearts, Hands and Hope has genuine compassion for children and families. We have an extraordinary relationship built on service and commitment.”
“There is so much strength in working with community groups and developing trusting relationships,” adds Michelle.
While a large portion of Hearts, Hands and Hope’s helpers are children and teens, in order to safely comply with COVID-19 restrictions, volunteers were temporarily limited to adults in a group of 10 or less.
“The kids always say they can’t wait to help again,” says Michelle. “We love to promote kids helping other kids. We normally have children help us pack food bags for our summer food program, which helps students in need over the break. Once this is all over, they’ll be back!”
When Michelle was PTA president at Heathrow Elementary School, she started Heathrow Hearts, a community service program for students to help economically disadvantaged children in Seminole County. In 2016, Michelle expanded that idea to form Hearts, Hands and Hope to assist struggling families. The organization has grown substantially in the last four years and recently opened its own facility in Sanford near communities in need. Now, instead of gathering at volunteers’ homes or other locations, operations can take place under one roof.
Hearts, Hands and Hope is 100 percent volunteer-based. It offers a summer food and food pantry program and provides backpacks, school supplies, books, and toiletries to homeless and disadvantaged children.
“The community and many generous sponsors have embraced our mission, and it’s been tremendous,” says Michelle. “Over the last few months of distributing meals, we’ve seen people break down in tears. They’re so used to doing without, but they’re so grateful. I know we’re meant to be doing this.”
See Janel Run
Over the past year, Longwood resident Janel Browning had been diligently training for her first-ever 50-mile ultramarathon scheduled in April. Janel was disappointed when COVID-19 concerns cancelled her plans, but she quickly found a way to combine her passions for running and helping children in need – a cause that holds a special place in her heart.
“I decided to run the distance on my own and use it as an occasion to raise funds to help nearby families that are impacted by the economic downturn and school closures due to COVID-19,” says Janel. “I learned about Hearts, Hands and Hope, and they were a great fit for my donation. Once I announced my plans on my GoFundMe page, all of my donors were there to hold me accountable.”
Janel was overwhelmed by the response and raised more than $6,000, three times her initial goal of $2,020 (to represent the year 2020).
On a drizzly April morning, Janel took off from her home and hit the Seminole-Wekiva Trail for what would end up being an epic 51.1-mile journey completed in nine hours, one minute, 27 seconds. Her husband set up aid stations along the way so Janel could swap out empty water bottles and do a quick sock-and-shoe change. Halfway through her run, she learned that the Amsler Family Foundation committed to match every Heart, Hands and Hope donation received for the month of April. Janel was greeted at the finish line by her husband, son, and a handful of Hearts, Hands and Hope volunteers.
“It was a whole new experience for me,” says Janel. “In the end, the stars were aligned, and I felt full of energy the whole day. I’m glad I did it for a cause that means so much to so many.”
It’s a Family Affair
The Berman family of Sanford is dedicated to the mission of Hearts, Hands and Hope. Parents Cary and Kelly and their sons Zach, (20), Evan (18), and Jake (13) volunteer in different capacities and the family goes to Midway Safe Harbor every Thursday to unpack, organize, and distribute meals.
“We see how impactful people’s donations are,” says Kelly, who works for Seminole County Public Schools as a reading acceleration program coordinator. “Those donations allow us to provide these meals, which help feed hardworking people who need an extra hand. It’s important that we do this as a family and do good in our community.”
The Bermans are very involved in community service and chose Hearts, Hands, and Hope as the primary place to give their time. Throughout the pandemic, they’ve continued to serve while keeping social distancing in mind and wearing their masks.
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“People are so grateful, and we just want to share the message that we care – and to stay healthy, and stay safe.”