Orlando’s epicenter for social services is led by an Oviedo neighbor with a heart for helping others.
Housed in a former World War II munitions warehouse on the outskirts of downtown Orlando resides the busiest single-site social service agency in the State of Florida, serving an average of 525 individuals a day.
Within its walls are classrooms, a grocery program, and counseling centers all focused on helping the area’s underserved residents turn the page. And at the head of the organization, the one responsible for lifting those lives, is Oviedo resident John Paccione.
John serves as the 2019 chairman of the board for United Against Poverty Orlando, better known as UP Orlando. The senior volunteer leader of the nonprofit organization, John became involved with UP Orlando about four years ago after learning of its work through friends and colleagues.
“I took a tour of the center and saw they had an employment program, a grocery program, GED assistance, and victim abuse counseling,” says John.”
I was surprised they had so many wonderful community partnerships. Today, we are up to 29 of those partnerships.”
This is the third consecutive year John has been named UP Orlando’s chairman. It is his drive to help others and see the organization grow that keeps him going.
“You touch people’s lives,” John says. “That’s why I do it.”
Eric Gray, UP Orlando’s executive director, says that while John has a strong focus on the business of the organization, deep down he is a person with a longing to help his fellow man.
“To volunteer at this level for a social service agency takes a significant amount of time and compassion,” Eric says. “John has been extremely generous with both.”
UP Orlando is designed to go beyond soup kitchens and food pantries. While emergency food is part of its charge, the real success lies in providing a place for those in need – called clients – to buy subsidized groceries and receive services to help break the poverty cycle.
“It’s about bringing their dignity back,” says John. “To get them away from handouts and back to a sustainable life – financially, emotionally, and spiritually. These people have been beat up while suffering the trauma of poverty.”
And the need here is real. Approximately 450,000 Central Florida families are living on less than $25,000 per year, and one in four Orlando-area children are born into poverty. John is fully aware of those needs and is taking steps toward sustainability so no one is left behind. Under John’s watch, UP Orlando is in the midst of building a larger volunteer base and has established critical food and cash surpluses to serve the community without missing a beat.
Currently, the board is devising a model to assist UP Orlando clients with viable transportation so they can travel to the center and report to a job. Down the road, John would like to expand UP Orlando into outlying areas to reach more individuals and families.
“We have made tremendous gains over the last couple of years as we work to reach a level of permanence and longevity in the community,” John says. “My goal is for a new campus. This place is held together with gum, glue, and duct tape.”
Born in New Jersey, John grew up on the north shore of Long Island. He came to Florida to attend the University of Miami and never looked back.
After migrating to Central Florida, John and his wife, Diane, lived with their three children in downtown Orlando before settling in Oviedo in 2013.
“We wanted to move closer to where our children were in school,” John says, noting his children were enrolled in The Geneva School in Casselberry at the time. His two younger children – Grace, a junior, and Joe, a sophomore – now attend Hagerty High School. The couple’s eldest child, Paul, attends Gordon College, north of Boston.
“We love Seminole County and getting involved,” John adds. “Plus, we’re closer to where our children’s athletic games are held.”
John admits he has always been a person who gets involved when help is needed, whether that is serving on a board or fundraising. He has a hard time saying no.
“There is a foundation of faith,” John believes. “God gives you opportunities, and it is up to you to say yes. I think it’s great to work with people who are thirsty to help other people.”
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