Make The Homeless Smile


Armed with a small grill from home – and as many hot dogs, potato chip bags and water bottles as she could get her hands on two days after Hurricane Irma pummeled Miami – Valencia Gunder headed straight into the heart of Liberty City to serve meals to the area’s residents, many of whom had not eaten since before the storm. When she finished there, the founder of local nonprofit Make the Homeless Smile and her small army of volunteers marched over to Little Haiti and did the same. Then, they went to Overtown. Then to Little Havana. Ultimately, in the days and weeks after the storm, Valencia and her crew made their way across Miami’s urban core, providing more than 20,000 meals to the city’s most vulnerable people, along with generous helpings of compassion and consolation. “It was overwhelming to say the least,” she recalls now. “We had to put in a lot of work.”

At the same time, some 30 miles to the south in the more rural parts of Homestead, Vanessa Tinsley, executive director of Bridge to Hope, a Community Grants recipient, was also confronting a crisis. Like Valencia, she addressed immediate food needs first, keeping her emergency operations center open for 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for three weeks, to give out 20,000 bags of groceries to locals. The region is so far south, Vanessa said, that it was virtually cut off from post-disaster relief services. “There would be an occasional pop-up food delivery,” she recalled. “But that just wasn’t enough. Weeks after the storm, grocery shelves were still empty. So we exhausted our funds, giving out in three weeks the food we would normally give in a year.”

Vanessa Tinsley
Vanessa Tinsley, executive director of Bridge to Hope, at a Hurricane Irma distribution site.

Working vastly different regions with vastly different needs, Valencia and Vanessa nevertheless share a mission: they’re two unwavering Miami women running critical programs that tackle the persistent issue of food security in South Florida. Now, with the 2018 hurricane season around the corner, they’re bracing, determined to be better prepared to confront a disaster should it come our way. Their respective initiatives are getting help to do just that with grant dollars from hurricane relief funds set up last fall at The Miami Foundation aimed at making sure nonprofits like theirs have the capacity to help residents and communities cope.

Hurricane Irma—considered the second costliest Caribbean hurricane on record and the most intense to strike the continental United States since Katrina in 2005—left 90 percent of FPL customers without power. But it was the city’s low-income families, its farmworker community and the elderly, who were arguably most affected. Often unable to find work in the storm’s aftermath, when the local economy was in a tailspin, many were left with no ability to buy food, let alone repair storm damage. Others exhausted their savings in the days leading up to and after the storm, then found themselves facing a steep journey to recovery weeks and months later.

Vanessa, who is a Miami Leaders alum, says the grant funds she received for hurricane relief from the Foundation went almost entirely to help low-income locals get back into or stay in their homes. “We had many people with uninsured losses, migrant workers living in mobile or manufactured homes, roofs peeled off, mattresses destroyed,” she said. “We focused on getting people housed safely.”

In the throes of her planning stages, she’s working on amassing some 50,000 pounds of food, so the region is able to sustain itself for 10 to 14 days. The plans also include using additional grant dollars to buy a 40-foot, self-contained refrigeration unit to house the food. And at the top of Vanessa’s most-wanted list: a food truck, so the group can deliver meals to those unable to move around after the storm, like the elderly and people with disabilities. While stocking up, she’s also connecting with outside organizations to better facilitate post-disaster relief efforts reaching her community. But her biggest dream, Vanessa said, is to find the funds to attend a national disaster conference taking place in July in Newark, where emergency relief workers from across the country will share learnings and best practices. “We need to shift our thinking about how we plan and prepare,” she said.

Valencia, too, is busy doing what she does best: organizing. Primarily focused on identifying strategic community hubs across the city, she’s already set up spots for Liberty City, Little Haiti, Allapattah, Shorecrest, North Miami, Homestead and Coconut Grove. (Still in the works: meeting places for Miami Gardens, Hialeah and Little Havana.) For each area, she’s identified a neighborhood captain to act as key point-people for the distribution of food, water and supplies. “It’s all about resiliency,” she said. “And having a plan in place.”

She also has a shopping list of critical items still needed: at least one, but preferably two, solar-powered ice machines; seven generators; five charcoal grills; and all kinds of first aid medical supplies. The tallest order? A centrally located 10,000-square-foot warehouse space to be used as an emergency operations center that would also act as a repository for supplies and food, and a communications center complete with Wi-Fi and charging stations. “Last year, in the middle of the crisis, someone donated space for us to operate from,” Valencia recalled. “But this year, no one we’ve approached has been able to give it to us in-kind.” Hopeful someone will step up soon, her eyes are firmly set on what’s next. “We did a good job of serving 23,000 people last year with only three days to prep,” she said. “Imagine what we can accomplish with six months.”

Betty Cortina-Weiss is a Miami-based journalist, storyteller and content producer.


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