This Easter weekend many of us will be gathering with friends and family, laying out huge feasts, eating until we're stuffed and then packing away all the leftovers, already dreaming of how delicious they'll all be tomorrow.
But for other less-fortunate persons - people with no family, no home and little means for survival - come Sunday, there won't be a delicious meal to look forward to and no place to go. There will be no feast. No table. And certainly, no leftovers. Too many of these people won't even remember when their last meal was. That is, unless they live in South Florida and have run across the compassionate souls who run the Peanut Butter & Jelly Project, a small group of Fort Lauderdale residents who could no longer ignore the plight of hunger in their own back yard and set out to make a difference.
Laura Florio, owner of Quillen's Bottle Gas Service, had seen a Vine featuring "Ten for $10" wherein ten people had been fed for ten dollars that resonated with her weeks earlier. When she found herself shopping in BJ's and looked down into her cart filled with several hundred dollars of items for her own family, she suddenly started grabbing things she thought would make a decent meal to see how many people she could feed for an extra $50 - a relatively small sum compared to what she was already spending.
Around 3:30 in the afternoon that same day, Florio and fiancée Micah Harris, Guru, Life Coach and Bartender Extraordinaire, packed a bunch of sandwiches and bottled water into their car and started circling the streets around Stranahan Park in Downtown Fort Lauderdale to spot people who looked like they could use a meal. To her surprise, they found a few, but not many. Unwilling to give up, and with fifty or so bologna sandwiches in the car, they kept at it and around 5 pm, it was as if hungry people suddenly "came out of hiding," Florio says. And that day, February 3, 2014, fifty people were fed. "We could do this once a week," she said.
Florio started to mention what her and Harris and done to a few friends who offered to chip in. This time, with a budget of $100, she hit the streets again armed with bags of food, this time feeding close to a hundred hungry people. She started to reach out to people she knew, requesting donations of clothes and money for the cause, but it came in trickles. Then she started a Facebook page and got some likes, a few more people offered to help out, some with money, and some with time.
Florio researched prices where she shopped, crunched some numbers and calculated that she could make bags containing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of pretzels, a banana and a bottle of water for around a buck. One dollar would feed one person. One. Single. U.S. American. Dollar. Then a friend made a logo that was added to the PB&J Facebook page and they got a thousand likes in a month. They started a PayPal account and donations started piling in and thus, the Peanut Butter & Jelly Project was born.
Hearing what Florio had been doing, a kind Fort Lauderdale resident who wishes to remain nameless, approached her about starting a 501c3 Non-Profit Organization and handed her a check to cover the pricey filing fee, ensuring that the donation money would continue to feed people and her mission could continue without having to designate funds to that expense.
Florio started asking for clothing donations and used some funds to purchase basic toiletries - underwear, razors, Tylenol, baby wipes - things that end up becoming prized possessions for people living on the street. A few hair stylist friends offered their time and set up chairs to give hair cuts to those who wanted them. What started as a once a week gig has turned into a Monday through Friday operation and now has a much more comprehensive and solutions-based approach.
"Simple things we take for granted..Cold medicine. Tylenol. AdviI. I bought 500 of each for $9 bucks and handed them out. These people, some of them are up there in years, their bodies hurt from sleeping on concrete and they don't have access to these things that you or I could just grab at CVS. People just don’t even think about things like that. These people don't get to shower. I buy boxes of baby wipes and bag them up for people. Being able to wash themselves even a little, these things mean so much to them. Being able to shave. It helps them feel better. Feel human. It's important."
Florio is dismayed about the huge misconception that most people hold about homelessness and hunger, thinking that people on the streets are all just dirty bums, drug addicts or alcoholics. Florio says that's not been her experience at all, and she's been out there with them, even visiting their "spot" where many of them congregate.
"These people came from somewhere. They had lives before this, homes, families. I have a guy out there who is an engineer. He took time to care for his ailing father and after his father died, lost his job. He ran through his 401K, eventually got booted out of his home. He has no drug problems, no drinking problems. He’s 48 years old, educated, and he’s a kind and decent human being. He's just down on his luck and has been homeless for 4 months now. I helped him get job placement...he has this impeccable resume, and now he's off the streets. What these people want and need...it’s a lot different than what people think. They need an advocate. Someone willing to listen."
It started simply, with just the desire to help fill an empty belly, but has grown into so much more. Since starting in February, Florio has helped three veterans she's met get signed up for their military benefits after verifying that their service is legitimate. She's also helping reunite people with their families to places as far away as Nebraska, Arizona and South Carolina. Not willing to trade homelessness here for homelessness there, Florio verifies that there is a safe place for the person to go and that someone will be receiving them once they arrive. She asks for a notarized letter and a call upon arrival, and so far, she's helped six people get off the street and get home. "Sometimes, all that's standing in the way of someone being off the street is a phone call, $200 bucks and a few days on a bus." says Florio.
Florio's aim with her Peanut Butter & Jelly Project is to eventually set up a full-service shelter that operates with more transparency and no corruption like many of the shelters that are out there currently. But for now she plans to just keep feeding as many people as possible and fight for people's right to exist and hopefully turn the tide on homelessness and hunger in her neighborhood.
As you sit down to your Easter feast this weekend, think about what you can do to help. And please, don't do nothing because you can only do a little, $1 = 1 person fed. The best way I've found so far to Stay Foodie, Fort Lauderdale, is to make sure everybody has some.
If you'd like to donate your time, services, clothing to the Peanut Butter & Jelly Project, you can contact them via email at:
Monetary donations can be made directly and securely via PayPal by clicking here.
Checks or money orders should be made payable to: Peanut Butter & Jelly Project and sent to the address below.
Peanut Butter & Jelly Project
430 NW 27th Ave
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33311