Forest families in need now more than ever

Volunteers Dalton Goodman, left, and Bari Woodard, youth pastor at Salt Life Church, carry bags of food to a waiting vehicle, whose occupants sought assistance from the Help Agency of the Forest food bank.

Needs don’t disappear in the face of trouble – they double. Or in the case of the Ocala National Forest, triple. Attempts to stop COVID-19 have left many without some of the support services they have come to depend on. One of those trying to help is the Help Agency, a faith-based nonprofit in the Ocala National Forest. An estimated 40,000 to 45,000 people live within the forest’s borders about 40 miles north of The Villages. Here 22% of people live below the poverty line, compared to 15.5% statewide, according to a report in December in the Daily Sun. The Help Agency serves those living in the forest through a food bank, after-school programs and financial help, among other services. The food bank, which serves about 7,000 people on average, has already seen needs double this month, said Pastor Dave Houck, founder and CEO of Help Agency.

“I have some idea it could possibly be triple,” Houck said Wednesday as the food bank saw its largest number of customers yet.

Every day, those numbers are ticking up.

Feeding the hungry

For many, food is a key concern. While shelves remained stocked at Wildwood Food Pantry, sourcing has become problematic. Meat, eggs, milk and other perishable items must be bought and cannot be donated.

 “With everything selling off the counters in stores, (our orders) are reduced by about 80%,” said Don Huggins,who coordinates Wildwood Food Pantry with his wife, Marlene.

In addition to their usual food handouts, Help Agency has also been providing hot meals for every person in every car.

Only one other food bank is offering drive-up services in the area right now.

Tri-county schools have also been trying to help. Darren Norris, school safety specialist for Sumter County Public Schools, said that, as of Tuesday, the district had distributed more than 12,000 total meals.

“Times are tough right now. A lot of people are unemployed. Those kids need those meals,” he said.

In Marion County, according to school district spokesman Kevin Christian, schools between March 24 and Tuesday served more than 90,000 free meals to between 4,000 and 5,000 children who seek help each week day. The district operates a total of more than 140 delivery sites.

However, there are difficulties for some students. Drop-offs are scheduled at the same time students are supposed to be online for class, Houck said, so parents with smaller children can’t leave them at home alone to pick up the food and older kids can’t leave class.

Supporting the need

Although Help Agency is surviving on a reserve fund built from an influx of holiday donations, money isn’t coming in the way it used to right now, Houck said, because many fundraisers have had to be postponed and people are nervous about what the future holds.

In that same uncertainty, families like Beth Baker’s have come to rely on Houck’s help.

Baker, 62, of Ocklawaha, is raising her two grandchildren and has two family friends staying with her “because they have nowhere else to live right now.”

“We were given a donation of food the first day there was a mention of a lockdown because they know we have a lot of kids going through my home, and I work with the homeless,” Baker said. “So we have a lot of food, and that’s good. The Help Agency continues to be a viable, very important part of our lives.”

A recent food drive from The Villages brought in a full truckload of food for Help Agency, but they went through it quickly.

While there are no plans for another food drive any time soon, Villagers are trying to come up with creative solutions, such as mobile ordering groceries with Houck as the pick-up person, said LaRae Donnellan, president of Friends of SoZo Kids in The Villages.

Because so many stores are limiting the number of goods a person can buy, Houck said “it’s like a game” to get enough food for the bank.

“I’ve been sending out drivers with money each day to four different stores, and they’ve been buying 12 cans here, 12 cans there,” he said. “It costs us a little more to do it the way we’re doing it.”

Donnellan said Houck, who usually takes a variety of donations, has made it clear he is only focusing on picking up food and money until “things return to normal.”

The best way to help is to send money so Houck can continue buying groceries. Sending checks to Camp SoZo at 19186 NE 13Th St., Silver Springs, 34488, is the easiest way to help.

Donnellan said those interested in helping can also call her at 850-766-0049 as they work on the next answer to what could be a long-term problem.

Senior Writers Bill Thompson and Jeff Shain contributed to this report.