Only a year ago, the food pantry at Boca Helping Hands distributed 500 bags of groceries each month to those in need. This year, they hand out 2,000 bags a month. Only a year ago, the soup kitchen served 2,200 lunches of, say, pot roast or turkey or stew each month. This year, that number exceeds 3,900 meals a month. Twice a week, hard times or not, groceries are delivered to the homebound in 21 homes.
“Grocery bags on steroids,” is what executive director Jim Gavrilos calls them. “We’re trying to get permits to deliver, Monday through Friday, the hot meal we serve Monday through Saturday in the kitchen.” He hopes the permits are only about a month away now.
As for the increased pantry distributions, the additional soup-kitchen servings, he says, “Clearly, it’s because of the economic downturn. What we’re seeing is middle-class people, people who’ve been out of work for six months, nine months, a year. At a certain point, it becomes a matter of survival.”
Program director Sally Wells thinks of the woman with two teenage daughters who lost their home to foreclosure after her ex-husband lost his job and, with it, his ability to pay child-support and alimony. The woman had a job for a while but, when it ended, what money she’d saved soon ran out.
“All their stuff was in storage, and they needed a week’s worth of shelter while she looked for work again,” says Wells, who is married to Gavrilos. “It’s hard for people to come in here and face the fact that they need help.” Boca Helping Hands gave them a temporary home at a motel on Federal Highway.
The hands that do the helping here belong to five staffers and 300 volunteers: They oversee the soup kitchen; the food pantry; the groceries delivered to the homebound; the “Blessings in a Backpack” program that sends home a weekend’s worth of meals and snacks for the 1,200 grade school children eligible for the federal free-lunch program; the classes on budgeting and job-seeking; the resource center that offers aid to people facing eviction or utility cancellation or in need of prescription medication.
The group’s mission — once aimed primarily at the government-subsidized housing areas of Pearl City and Dixie Manor in eastern Boca — has expanded, recently, into the city’s western reaches. “We just began distributing (grocery bags) at Boca Glades Baptist Church,” says Wells. “People have transportation problems or no money for gas. A hundred bags a week. And it’s growing.”
School-based food drives, individuals, corporations, entities as diverse as Boca Raton Regional Hospital and Whole Foods, donate to Boca Helping Hands, which began in 1998. The group was the inspiration of a half-dozen or so people, both Christians and Jews, says Gavrilos, an ex-priest.
“We do what we can,” says Wells. “As soon as food comes into our warehouse, it goes out. We definitely need donations.”
Boca Helping Hands
1500 NW First Court, Boca Raton
www.bocahelpinghands.org or through Coastal Star/Microgiving fundraising effort: www.microgiving.com/profile/jgavrilos
Needs: Check the website. ($25 pays for up to 10 hot meals served in the Food Center; $100 will supply seven families with a bag of groceries; $1,000 will help feed 20 homebound clients for one month or pay rent for one family).