Villagers continue to give in time of need

Club president-elect Gay Ratcliff-Seamens, of the Village of Belle Aire, unloads a bag of donated food from a car during a food drive for the Rotary Club of The Villages - Evening.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, Villagers push forward with new ways to help the community. The Villages has long held a reputation for philanthropic efforts. Giving USA reports that in 2019, charitable giving was up 4.2% nationally. Giving USA is a long-running report researched and written by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at IUPUI, a public university in Indianapolis. In The Villages, many are working to increase those numbers. With a statewide shutdown to help eliminate the spread of COVID-19, many social and charitable groups sought out ways to fill the growing need. Rick Dunham, chair of Giving USA Foundation, has been monitoring the trends and seeing how they changed in the midst of COVID-19.

“Clearly Americans prioritize generosity as a key part of their lives,” Dunham said. “The solid growth of giving in 2019 brought total giving close to the record level set in 2017, meaning the past three years are the three highest years on record. While it’s too soon to tell what that will mean in the uncharted territory of today (with COVID-19), these estimates provide an important baseline for understanding where giving stood before the current crisis.”

Knowing the last few months have been hard, Villages residents have stepped up by hosting food drives, crafting masks or casseroles and making monetary donations.

Food Drives and Donations

When Florida was under the stay at home order, charitable organizations including the Lake-Sumter Lions Club, the Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake and local Rotary Clubs didn’t let the lack of in-person meetings stop them from gathering supplies and forming drives to help.

The Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake started an Adopt A Family service project in mid April. Members partnered with community leaders to identify families directly affected by consequences of COVID-19, including job loss. They were given essential items including groceries and personal hygiene products.

“We worked with school counselors and Sidney Brock, pastor of Heritage Community Church, to help us identify families who needed the most help,” said Village of Calumet Grove resident Cleve Tinsley, former president of the Kiwanis Club of Lady Lake. “After families had been identified and their requests received, members of the club would shop and deliver the items they requested.”

Since the project launched, members have helped more than 60 families, and help a new group of families each week.

Some clubs also started food drives or donated money.

At the beginning of the pandemic, The Villages Parrothead Club collected $5,000 to help servers and bartenders who were out of work.

“We focused on establishments we frequented, but we were happy to help with their needs,” said Club President Mark Woodland.

Seven Rotary Clubs from the tri-county area held a four-hour food drive on May 21, with more than 19,000 pounds of food distributed between food pantries supported by local churches.

“We just wanted to help make a difference. It was wonderful to see The Villages community involved,” said Tim Treat, former president of the Rotary Club of The Villages-Evening.

The group will host another food drive July 18.

After the cancellation of several fundraisers, the Lake-Sumter Lions Club also held a food drive to collect much needed goods. Their drive consisted of six drop-off locations where non-perishable food and money was collected to help fill pantries. Over 2,000 pounds of food was collected and distributed to food pantries in Lady Lake, Wildwood, Fruitland Park and the Help Agency of the Forest, which sponsors the SoZo Kids.

“Without many of the jobs held before COVID-19, I don’t know how these people would survive without help,” said Bob Disinger, publicity chairman of the Lake-Sumter Lions Club. “The need for donations is now, because so many need help.”

Orange Blossom Gardens Lions Club donated $500 to help food pantries with additional needs.

“We wanted to be able to help because our motto is ‘To Serve’ and how would we be serving if we didn’t help those in need?” said club president Paul Holland

Even though the drive is over, people can still donate by calling drive organizer, John Hanna, at 352-502-2224.

Other Forms of Help

As many leaders have seen various needs arise in the midst of the pandemic, they are helping to meet those needs while recruiting others to assist. Such needs include making face masks for first responders and cancer patients and cooking more food for the Wildwood Soup Kitchen.

Bonnie Boxes of The Villages, a charitable program that normally prepares care packages for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, noticed the need for facial masks for patients with weakened immune systems as they went to and from treatment. As a result, they put a pause on their care packages to collect and donate more than 200 masks to the Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute at the Sharon L. Morse Medical Center and three other Florida Cancer center locations throughout The Villages.

“It was something to let patients know we’re still thinking about them,” said Village of Amelia resident Nancy Leary, founder of Bonnie Boxes in The Villages.

Busy Hands, Happy Hearts also recognized the need for facial masks for first responders. The group paused making book bags for Fruitland Park Elementary students in March and focused on sewing and distributing more than 1,000 masks, with more requests being made.

“Those who volunteered to sew these projects have been staying busy,” said Club President Karen Nehrenz. “We split up projects amongst them, because there is such a need.”

The Village Rio Grande resident said the group was honored to help out first responders by providing masks against the fight of COVID-19.

Members of Busy Bakers also looked for ways they could help. Busy Bakers, which makes and donates desserts to the Wildwood Soup Kitchen, continued to provide desserts, but 15 members have also prepared casseroles.

“When the soup kitchen closed and started working out of a home, some of us made casseroles to help feed those in need so the soup kitchen wouldn’t have to figure out what they could serve,” said Diane Davis, organizer of Busy Bakers and Village of Lynnhaven resident. “We knew desserts weren’t as essential, but knew people still needed help.”

Staff writer Andrea Davis can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5374, or andrea.davis@thevillagesmedia.com.