Harlem Heights thankful to serve community; helps 300 families with holiday meal

STACEY HENSON, SHENSON@NEWS-PRESS.COM

Mixed among the frozen turkeys, stuffing packets and yams, nearly 300 families mingled in the Harlem Heights neighborhood on Sunday afternoon, thankful for the bounty.

636467132360143467-IMG9527161The Heights Center, supported by The Heights Foundation, and the Gladiolus Food Pantry just around the corner, both distributed food stuffs.

The Heights Foundation is a grass-roots organization that works to build strong, self-sufficient families.

In its 19th year of the holiday meal giveaway, the foundation’s CEO and President Kathryn Kelly said it is important to be consistent.

“For residents of community, we show them that we love them, care about them and are here for them when they need something,” she said.

The center partnered with more than 100 volunteers, agencies, business and philanthropic organizations to distribute the food four days before the Thanksgiving holiday.

At the food pantry, more than 50 volunteers helped distribute food to about 500 people.

“This is our way of giving to the communities that are always giving to us,” said Miriam Ortiz, the founder and executive director of the pantry. Local churches, businesses and community organizations donated food for the event.

The poverty rate for children in Harlem Heights is more than twice the average in Lee County, with family income 40 percent below the county average.

About 780 children live in a mixture of single-family homes and multifamily apartments in southwest Fort Myers. The population is approximately 70 percent Hispanic, 20 percent African-American, and 8 percent Caucasian.

Because of the diversity, Sunday’s outreach at Heights was set up similar to a grocery, and participants chose sides, such as rice, vegetables and yams. They also took home a turkey. And while they shopped, they can mingle with one another and the volunteers.

“It’s another chance to see families in a different element that come through to get groceries,” Kelly said “They talk to them and see whole family together. It’s a great way for our volunteers to meet families and be engaged in neighborhood.”

The Thanksgiving giveaway is one of three community outreach programs annually by the foundation. In addition to an August school supplies giveaway, neighborhood parents are invited in December to “shop” for gifts. They also go home with a ham or turkey.

Kelly said many organizations, civic groups and churches collect toys and gifts. Donations are accepted at any time, as well as financial support.

The center houses a charter school for grades kindergarten, first and second, as well as offers English as a Second Language, GED courses and TLC — Teach Learn Connect — parenting help, such as teaching parents how to work with their children’s teacher.

“The outreach allows the volunteers to see the depth and width of the work that we do,” Kelly said. “It’s just one little aspect, an idea of what can be done.”

The center has about 100 students on the property each weekday for after school services and summer camps.