WORDS Tara Crutchfield • PHOTOGRAPH Amy Sexson
Heart for the Homeless
At 9am on weekdays, between 10 and 12 homeless women are waiting at the door of Repurpose Art Studio. Whatever walk of life has brought them to where they are, Gospel, Inc. is there to accept them with open arms and bring them into their community.
In the mornings, “They come in, they have coffee, they just sit and decompress,” said Connie Lutter, Director for the art studio. They close at 11:30 for lunch when most of them go to the Talbot House.
“Most of them stay there, that’s where they sleep, that’s where they eat and then they come here during the day because otherwise they’d just be walking the streets. This is their safe haven,” she said.
This “safe haven,” Repurpose Art Studio is just one of the many initiatives Gospel, Inc. has created to assist and empower the homeless.
After lunch, the women return to go upstairs where there is a room of sewing machines and art supplies. They spend the rest of the day sewing and creating. As a creative space, Brian Seeley, founder of Gospel, Inc. said, “There’s a therapeutic side to that, but then there’s also an opportunity for them to earn an income.”
The art studio has paid internships and is currently doing a 4-month internship where six women are being paid by the hour to learn to sew. They take their products and sell them at the farmers market. They have the chance to earn a dignified income, of which 75% is applied towards moving them into their own place.
From Long Island, Brian became a Christian at 19. He went to Youth With a Mission in New Zealand, where, “I really encountered God and I felt God calling me to work with the homeless and go into ministry,” said Seeley.
He spent a year and a half in the South Pacific doing mission work. “I spent a lot of time living on the streets with the homeless and really entering into their world and engaging them where they were at,” he explained.
“Jesus led me into a relationship with the homeless. If you read through the gospels, you’ll see Jesus constantly moving towards the outcast and confronting religious leaders who were pushing people to the margins. He was always trying to bring in the outcast and include them,” he said. “After I became a Christian, I tried to follow Jesus into that and tried to figure out how do I model Christ’s love for the homeless and the outcasts.”
In 2008, after his mission work, he went back to Long Island to work at his dad’s business for a year and made the decision to go full time into ministry. For him, this meant attending college at Southeastern University.
In Lakeland, he continued spending much of his time diving into the lives of the homeless, building relationships with them and learning their needs. He looked at not only how he could help them with certain issues, but also from the standpoint of, “How can I break down the social barriers that typically would separate us from one another?”
“I think that approach provides a better opportunity to help when you’re kind of just there to be there,” he said. This immersion into the lives of the homeless started him on the path to begin Gospel, Inc. in 2011.
In addition to the time they spent building relationships on the streets, Brian said, “We kind of became like case managers in some ways and so if someone needed to go to detox, I’d bring them to detox or I’d help them get into a program.”
Another project, still in the planning stages is a concept called Gospel Town. This would be a community of tiny houses for the chronically homeless. Brian spoke about his vision, “For a number of years, we’ve kind of just been dreaming about what we could do for housing. Specifically, permanent housing for chronically homeless individuals. A chronically homeless individual is someone who has been homeless for a year or longer or has multiple episodes of homelessness over the course of three years and also has a disability.”
The chronically homeless, making up roughly 20 percent of the homeless population are in need of permanent supportive housing.
“We’ve just been dreaming of creating a space where those folks who need a lot of community support can have their own home, they don’t have to leave it, they can stay there for as long as they want. Then us members from the ministry would move into that village alongside them,” explained Brian.
Gospel, Inc. had their first “friendraiser” in 2017 where they raised over $200K, of which $100K was set aside as “seed money” for their Gospel Town plans.
They began exploring the country for inspirational concepts that they could learn from and bring to Lakeland. In that process, they found Community First! Village of Austin, Texas. “To me that was everything I ever dreamed of and more coming true in Austin,” said the Gospel, Inc. founder.
Community First! Village had already created 200+ units for the chronically homeless with 40 missional people living amongst them. Their model could be replicated and has an 87% retention rate.
They visited the village for a week, attending their symposium to learn what they’re doing and how to bring that back to Lakeland. “They have a desire to see cities across the world take on this model and apply it however it looks or fits,” he said about the village.
An attractive aspect of that community in Austin is their microenterprise opportunities similar to those at Repurpose Art Studio. At Community First! Village, residents can earn up to $900 a month which helps them to pay their rent. “I love that about what they do. It’s more than just a home – it’s the home, it’s the community, and it’s the dignity of work,” he expressed.
Seeley returned to Lakeland and has been sharing his excitement about the project since. At their recent “friendraiser,” the organization raised $380K, $280K of which will be added to their Gospel Town seed fund.
The plan for Gospel Town is to scale over time. There are 250 home sites at the Austin village and Brian hopes to one day have that in Lakeland.
With a heart for the homeless and his dream set in motion, Brian said, “My hope is that we be a thriving Christian community that provides quality long-term care for chronically homeless folks that includes them and their gifts in what we do together.”
From service days and outreach, to connecting Gospel, Inc. to other people and resources that could help them accomplish their vision, there are plenty of ways you can get involved. With more relationally oriented volunteer opportunities, it is Brian Seeley’s hope that people will come and develop a relationship with the homeless and become a resource to them, a part of their community.
Repurpose Art Studio
WORDS Tara Crutchfield
(Volunteers in Service to the Elderly)
Celebrating 35 years this year, Lakeland-based nonprofit VISTE makes a priority of one of the most valuable parts of the community – the elderly. VISTE was founded by a group of volunteers who saw a need in the community for people who were no longer able to drive themselves to doctor appointments or other errands.
In 1983, they started with around 40 clients and had volunteers drive them around to where they needed to go. Word spread quickly, and they made the effort to formalize, becoming a United Way Agency and obtaining 501(c)(3) status.
“Transportation remains the cornerstone of our program, but as time has gone on, we’ve added more and more programs to meet the need,” explained VISTE’s Community Engagement Director, Ashley Miller.
“Our mission is to keep people safe and independent in their own home,” she said.
All of VISTE’s clients are 70 or older and live in Lakeland, Bartow, Ft. Meade, and Mulberry, with the average client being a female in her early 80’s living alone.
Much of what they do has a volunteer interaction aspect to it. “That’s something that we always want to focus on – not only the services we’re delivering but that socialization that’s so important to people who are alone,” Miller said.
With a milestone birthday of 35 years, Miller reflected on the impact VISTE has had on the community and those they seek to help. “In America, the fastest growing population today is the elderly. What is happening more and more, we’ve seen an increase in demand for services grow and grow over the years. We’ve gone from those original 40 or so clients to now over 4000 clients and then we’ve gone from those original 12 volunteers to over 1000 volunteers.”
She sees the impact as two-pronged. The first of that is, assisting clients to age in their homes not only keeps them an integral part of the community, but it also saves taxpayer dollars.
“The other option that a lot of these clients have is to go into a nursing home. Most of them cannot afford to live in an assisted living facility,” she relayed.
If someone can no longer drive or cook for themselves and find it necessary to go to a nursing home, it’s often Medicare picking up some of that expense. But, by investing in an organization like VISTE, they can effectively keep people out of the nursing home.
“There are some times when it’s not safe for someone to stay in their home, but there are instances where they just might be teetering on the edge and these support services can keep them aging in place longer,” she said. “I think by volunteers and donors supporting VISTE, they’re investing in part of what makes our community really great and that’s our elders.”
The second part of their impact is that of volunteers, allowing them to engage in philanthropy. Volunteers from ages 3 to 95, Miller said, “I think a lot of times they are getting as much out of it as the client is.”
Of the many challenges that Polk County seniors face, Ashley mentioned two of the most problematic and apparent issues.
With mental health being just as important as physical health, the social isolation some seniors face can be devastating. Many of their clients live alone without family or friends nearby.
Miller explained, “That interaction that volunteers have with them whether it’s a phone call or a delivery of something, sometimes they are stepping in as a surrogate family or becoming a friend or someone that they can count on.”
The other major problem is food insecurity. There are elderly members of the community who have to choose between paying their electric bill or prescription copay over buying groceries.
Through VISTE’s supplemental grocery program, in which 1500 households are enrolled, seniors are given a box of food each month, allowing them to stretch their dollar and hopefully make them more food secure.
While assisting with all the heavy-hitting issues seniors face, VISTE also makes individualizing them and making them feel special a priority. All of their clients receive a birthday card during the month of their birthday, and their clients who are 90 and older are offered a birthday cake, goody bag, and bouquet of flowers.
“We chose that demographic (90 and older) because these are people that grew up in the Great Depression when sugar and flour were being rationed and unless their families were in the position to have that kind of celebration, some of them didn’t have those birthday parties and celebrations that we remember having as children.”
Also, someone who is over 90 has likely outlived many family and friends, so for VISTE volunteers to step in to celebrate them on their birthday is a special sentiment.
Volunteers do everything from baking the cakes, decorating them, putting together goodie bags, and donating flowers.
This is a fantastic opportunity for students as they can earn community service hours for baking cakes.
Also special, is the delivery of turkey dinners for Thanksgiving. VISTE has been delivering turkey dinners to clients the day before the holiday for 22 years now. They started the program delivering just 100 meals out of a restaurant that was where Harry’s is now, downtown. They used the space to prepare the meals, volunteers would deliver them, and every year the program grew.
Now operating out of the RP Funding Center, VISTE will deliver 1800 meals. Volunteers will decorate and color placemats and bags for the meals, chef and kitchen staff volunteer their time for the three days leading up to delivery, 150 volunteers will come together to snap 400 pounds of fresh pole beans, and flowers are donated by Sunshine Growers.
“It’s amazing to watch members of the community show up on that day and get in a line that wraps around the building to deliver just one or two meals,” said Miller.
Everything VISTE does for the community, of course, takes funding. Born from their annual fundraising campaign, over the last three years, they’ve had an online fundraising platform called “Serve a Senior.”
The initiative of Bill Mutz who was their campaign chair, Mutz thought VISTE was missing a large demographic of donors by not participating in online campaigns.
For a long time, donors were able to go online to donate, but they didn’t have a focused effort until the Serve a Senior program.
This peer to peer fundraising event has community members become “team captains” over a thirty-day period. During this time, they share it with their friends, who share with their friends, and so on, leading to a snowball effect of donations.
Miller expressed, “We’ve had success in the last three years in raising between $20K - $30K just online over that period of thirty days to add to our annual fundraising campaign which ultimately has a goal of $350K.”
If you would like to become a Volunteer in Service to the Elderly, VISTE has flexibly volunteering options for you. They’re able to tailor the volunteer opportunities to your availability, so you could help an hour a week or on a recurring basis to improve the lives of Polk County seniors.
Because of the explosion in growth of the program, VISTE’s largest need currently are for volunteers to deliver hot meals every Tuesday and Thursday. Ten years ago, they were delivering 100 meals twice a week, that number has now gone up to over 350.
Holiday volunteering opportunities are also available. The week before Christmas, volunteers can spread a little extra cheer by delivering gifts to clients.
For more information on volunteering, email Ashley Miller at email@example.com or fill out a volunteer application online at http://viste.org/become-a-viste-volunteer
1232 E Magnolia St, Lakeland
WORDS Tara Crutchfield
GiveWell Community Foundation
Give help. Give hope. Give well.
$161M – that’s how much money GiveWell Community Foundation (GWCF) has granted since its inception twenty years ago, and, over those twenty years, the nonprofit has made giving easier for its fundholders.
If you aren’t familiar with Community Foundations, President and CEO Terry Simmers explained that they are a 501(c)(3) public charity dedicated to make a particular region better and stronger. Though they are a nonprofit, they are not a typical service provider. The services they provide are intended to promote impactful change in their community and to assist donors with their philanthropic goals. They are more of a “connector” between donors and nonprofits, according to Simmers. GiveWell Community Foundation does not compete with other nonprofits, Simmers explained. “We don’t fundraise… we house the assets for fundholders to give out (to nonprofits) into the future.”
“The Foundation is made up of a broad base of donors – people who are passionate about animals, and people who are passionate about arts and culture, or passionate about education. What they all have in common is they want a better community,” said Communications Manager for GiveWell Community Foundation, Dave Walter. “We try to bring those people all to the table and work together to create a better now and a better future.”
From July 2017 to June 2018, the Foundation granted 948 grants totaling $21M to nonprofits. Ninety-three percent of those grants were awarded to Florida nonprofits, with 82 percent of them going into one of the three counties they serve.
With various fund options, GWCF currently is home to more than 300 individual funds and growing. “Donor-advised funds” are the most popular, making up almost half of the charitable funds at the Foundation. More than 60 nonprofits have established what is called an “agency fund” to invest their savings and be part of their collective investment pool. The Foundation also houses “community funds” for public parks in Lakeland and Winter Haven to ensure their preservation for future generations. Other fund types include designated, legacy, memorial, field of interest, and unrestricted funds.
Establishing a fund with the Community Foundation is simple, and the process can be personalized to meet your charitable giving goals. Once a fund is established, fundholders can take their time deciding where and when their donations are distributed. The Foundation can take care of the rest. GWCF is able to handle the daunting administrative aspects of philanthropy, such as giving to multiple organizations and turning non-cash assets into cash donations for nonprofits.
What projects are GiveWell proudest of? “We love seeing the impact each year from our grants... (and) last year, we responded to Hurricane Irma by creating the Disaster Relief Fund... to provide long-term relief throughout Polk County,” said Simmers. The Community Foundation also offers two annual grant cycles called “Impact Polk” and “Empower Polk.”
He described Impact Polk as “an annual competitive grant program of the GiveWell Community Foundation with the goal of addressing community needs throughout Polk County.” Empower Polk was launched this year as a new grant cycle with a goal of empowering local nonprofits and “meeting needs that will help them fulfill their mission and support our community more effectively.”
It would be an understatement to say that GiveWell Community Foundation has touched every aspect of the community. Discussing the organization’s community impact, Simmers said, “The community leaders who established the Foundation wanted to establish a culture of philanthropy here in our community. They wanted to invest in their community, and, today, there are more than 300 active charitable funds at GiveWell Community Foundation. In addition to grantmaking, the Foundation provides insight to fundholders and nonprofits. Fundholders have the peace of mind of knowing that their donations are truly making an impact. We also meet with many nonprofits to provide insight and expertise and learn from them about pressing needs throughout our community.”
GiveWell Community Foundation
1501 Florida Ave S, Lakeland
20 3rd St SW #307, Winter Haven