“You know there's nothin', nothin', nothin' I would not do. Whoa, no. Before I let you go.”
Before I Let You Go, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly
The lyric from one of the most popular R&B songs of all time blares from a speaker and resonates on a sunsplashed day at United Way Suncoast’s Campbell Park Resource Center. In a way, the words reflect the spirit of a noble effort.
On this morning, the volunteers have gathered again to give meals to those in need. The cars, lined in a semicircle, are as varied as the people driving them. There’s a hatchback with a father and a toddler, the little girl snug in the backset. There’s a pickup with a gentleman sporting a USAF hat, a sedan with two moms looking to feed both their families and an elderly man who arrives on his mobility vehicle, a cart attached to the back.
The weekly food distribution, aided by Feeding Tampa Bay and funded by the Tampa Bay Rays, is an act of service that reminds us how much people have struggled since the pandemic struck the world in 2020. But the music lends a festive nature to what could be a somber sign of the times. “We all like vibing,” said Dr. Jeffery Johnson, the United Way Suncoast senior manager who has led the relief effort for more than a year. “It lifts up spirits.”
The drivers pull up with smiles on their faces. Some even bop their head to the sounds of Maze, Chaka Khan, Cameo and other groups. Boom replaces gloom. Lyrics triumph over the year-long lull. Campbell Park staffer Cynthia Smith, who has been at the distributions since the beginning, joins other staffers and volunteers in bouncing to the beats.
“Let me be the one you come running to.”
Let’s Stay Together, Al Green
For the volunteers, there’s gratitude that the families have come running to UWS and running to them. Most have been at every distribution for more than a year. They know many of “the regulars” who have come to rely on their service.
“When we started, it was a school pantry just for families of the schools,” said Johnson, noting that a portion of the meals are still set aside for John Hopkins Middle, Campbell Park Elementary and Melrose Park Elementary students. “But when we opened it up to the entire community, we’ve seen people who’ve been coming for over a year, and we’ve built relationships with them. We recognize them, we know their cars.”
It’s this camaraderie that fuels the drive of the volunteers who have joined Johnson for more than a year. Laurie Stewart, 61, drives from Palmetto every week to help out. She first started volunteering with her daughter because they both wanted to give back. “I’m recently retired and this is an important mission for me, to give my time,” said Stewart, who worked in senior healthcare.
Dennis and Deborah Brooks, also retired, are drawn by a desire to be kind. “I’m a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc., and I got into volunteering because I’ve been with them for more than 30 years,” Deborah said.
Maude McDonald, a 64-year-old retired Air Force veteran, said she’s driven by the fact the distribution gives parents the ability to put food on the table and feed their children. “When we can do that, it makes my heart smile,” McDonald said. “It’s just a great thing.”
“Ain’t gonna hurt nobody to get on down. Don’t stop me, and I won’t stop you.”
Ain’t Gonna Hurt Nobody, Brick
As the line of cars begins to dwindle and the pallets of food shrink, the joy continues to permeate the distribution. Families drive away with protein, ranging from chicken to steak to seafood. There’s also boxes of fruits, vegetables and dairy including milk, cheese and yogurt, and kids' boxes with a healthy mix of snacks for children. The final touch? Varied breads. On every Thursday, Johnson estimates that they give away 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of food.
But they’re also giving away hope, security, love and some vibes to lift up the day. What the staff and volunteers get in return is even more immeasurable. “I’m not only helping them, but they’re helping me,” McDonald said. “I feel like I’m with family. I feel like I belong here. I love what I do.”