At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy members found ways to support the WLP and Tampa Bay communities, including volunteering in food distribution lines with the nonprofit organization Feeding Tampa Bay.
Sept. 15, 2022
The lines of cars would snake hundreds deep into the parking lot of the Yuengling Center, with each vehicle carrying its own story of extreme hunger and desperation. There were frequently entire families inside, and sometimes just one driver who had come to help a neighbor or friend. But, always, there were words or tears of gratitude.
This was the emotional scene on the USF Tampa campus during the highly worrisome months of the pandemic, beginning in the fall of 2020 when COVID-19 cases had once again soared in Florida. And at the heart of it were volunteers from USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy who, in partnership with the nonprofit organization Feeding Tampa Bay, found a way to make a difference when safety precautions made it impossible to hold meetings, stage events and support WLP scholars as usual.
One afternoon a month, dozens of WLP members donned gloves and masks — at an especially uncertain and frightening time prior to vaccinations and as COVID cases climbed — and gathered at two make-shift food stations near the Alumni Center.
It was there that the car line became a lifeline to local residents desperately in need of sustenance. And, in fact, it morphed into an assembly line of sorts — with WLP volunteers working methodically to load bags and boxes of vital perishable and non-perishable food items into popped-trunks or crowded back seats. Over the course of three hours, one car after the next pulled up, and pulled out, until some 500 had been filled with monthly food rations — and nourished with hope.
The meaning of these shared moments, bringing WLP members together to make an impact underscored the power and commitment of the organization.
“Even when opportunities were limited and we couldn’t connect with our WLP scholars face to face, our members came to us and asked, ‘How can we help?’” recalled Kate Evans, who was then executive director of WLP. “I think it just speaks to the community spirit of our organization, and the overall determination and leadership of our members wanting to make Tampa Bay a better place.”
The idea for the initiative came about with news that Feeding Tampa Bay was distributing food at different locations throughout the area — including on the USF Tampa campus several times a month. It was an ideal opportunity to collaborate with Feeding Tampa Bay, while also offering WLP members a way of reconnecting back on campus in a highly meaningful way. An invitation was sent out and the response was immediate — some 30 members, as well as a handful of WLP scholars, were ready for duty.
Evans recalls the feelings that she and the group experienced early on, stocking cars with essentials — and every month that followed. “It was humbling,” she said. “There is a human connection that is felt in situations like these that you just cannot put into words.”
For WLP Chair Moira Burke, the monthly endeavor was not only life-affirming for all involved but also provided another important lesson for WLP scholars. “It showed the students how we as an organization can help the community,” she said.
From a personal perspective, Burke, a retired ophthalmologist and USF professor, found that working together as a group during such challenging, unprecedented times raised everyone’s spirits.
“I remember when we were scared just to go to the grocery store, and I had to be particularly careful due to my age and being immunocompromised,” she said. “I missed being together as a group so much, and I think everybody began to miss it, too. We also heard from our students — they were in unknown territory and many were new to dorms. When campus closed and they went home, many left behind rental agreements that still had to be paid.”
WLP leadership, including seed money contributed by Burke, provided an emergency fund for WLP students facing pressing financial situations. And when the opportunity to partner with Feeding Tampa Bay arose, it became another way for the organization to support its scholars — involving them in a hands-on way of helping others, just as WLP had helped them in their own time of great need.
Kristin Cunningham, chair of WLP’s Scholarship Committee, vividly remembers the camaraderie that took hold each time the group met to distribute food.
“You’re getting out of your own skin and seeing there are so many problems we can help solve if we just step out of our comfort zones a little,” she said.
“I’ll be the first to say that I was terrified that first month, because nobody was vaccinated, and we were coming in contact with so many people for the first time in a long while. I wore double masks just to be extra careful. But dealing with this different level of discomfort and uncertainty brought us even closer together. And when the people pulled up, they were just so grateful — they’d often start crying, and honestly, it was hard not for us to cry, too.”
Feeding Tampa Bay representatives always brought along a boom box, which regularly blasted ’80s hits as a musical backdrop. “We would dance and sing, and it was a way to relax everybody,” she said. “We were there as a team, and we knew we could work our way through it.”
One of the regulars was Pilot Bank vice president Tracy Holt, a relatively new WLP member who always showed up, rain or shine. Pilot Bank is a sponsor of the organization, and President Rita Lowman suggested that Holt join after going to work at the bank two years ago. She didn’t hesitate when the chance emerged to lend a helping hand to residents in dire need of food.
“I live and work in this community, and when I heard of the opportunity during the pandemic to make a difference, there was no question I wanted to be part of the effort,” she said. “For me, it was definitely an opportunity to connect with the community and to give back. You could just see how grateful and appreciative everyone driving up was. One day it was pouring down rain, but all of us were out there, committed to helping these families.”
“Tracy had an energizing spirit among the volunteers,” said Evans. “Everyone who showed up made a genuine difference at a critical time. I think this experience is something that, to some degree, defined who we are as an organization. During a challenging period, where so much was out of our own control, this was our way of saying, ‘We can make things better.’ And that speaks to the mission of WLP and our wonderful members.”