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Providing Help in Pinellas

by Dave Mishkin / Tampa Bay Lightning

By now, Lightning fans are well aware of owner Jeff Vinik’s commitment to doing good works in the Tampa Bay area. Anyone who has attended a Lightning home game in the last two years has witnessed the team’s Community Hero program. The Lightning select a nominated ‘hero’ and gives that special person $50,000 to donate to a chosen charity.

Vinik’s philanthropic beliefs imbue the entire organization. Lightning employees participate in the C.H.A.R.G.E. program. (The acronym stands for Contributing Hours Across the Region through our Generous Employees). Every few weeks, employees receive email notifications from the Lightning Foundation about upcoming opportunities to spend a day working with a charitable organization.

I’ve enjoyed the C.H.A.R.G.E. events that I’ve done for two reasons. First, no matter what kind of mood I might have been in heading to the event, I always left it feeling better than when I arrived. Giving back to the community is an uplifting experience. Second, visiting charities provides me with a newfound appreciation for what these non-profits are actually doing.

Over the summer, I participated in a C.H.A.R.G.E. event at Pinellas Hope, a homeless shelter in Pinellas Park. The Lightning teamed up with Majestic Athletic and the USF Sports and Entertainment Management MBA Program to help spruce up the grounds. I spent half a day putting a fresh coat of paint on ‘cabanas’. Others worked prepping food, spreading mulch or painting other parts of the shelter. But we weren’t the only ones. The residents themselves were working side-by-side with us.

The best part of the day occurred at the lunch break, however. That was when Sheila Lopez, who heads up Pinellas Hope (and is a previous Lightning Community Hero), told us more about what her organization does.

I confess that prior to that day, I had very little concept of what a homeless shelter looked like or how it operated. The only preconceived notion I had came from the movie The Pursuit Of Happyness. Starring Will Smith, it was inspired by the true story of Chris Gardner, who scraps his way from homelessness to successful businessman. Near the beginning of the movie, Gardner must hustle from his full-time job, retrieve his son from daycare and scramble to get in line at the local homeless shelter. If he was too far back in the line, he was out of luck, since there were only so many beds. The facility was, literally, a shelter for one night. Everyone who stayed was not guaranteed a spot for the next day. They had to return the following afternoon and get in line outside the front door.

On my way to Pinellas Hope that day, I remembered the scene from the movie in which Gardner and his son were turned away (they ended up sleeping in a public bathroom that night). I wondered what I would find at the event. As in the movie, would I see homeless people lining up in hopes of getting a bed?

Needless to say, I was surprised when I saw the expansive grounds, covered with hundreds of small tents. Through my work that day, I also became familiar with the cabanas, obviously! They were no bigger than most walk-in closets, but compared to the tents, they did have a roof and four solid walls.

As for the residents working alongside us, I didn’t know who they were – and wouldn’t have had any idea that they were homeless, expect for the fact that Sheila asked them to stand and be recognized at lunch.

But yes, they were the residents. And by residents, I mean residents. Unlike what was depicted in the movie, these people didn’t have to worry about finding a bed every night. We learned that Pinellas Hope can house about 300 people at a time. The residents receive a number of services, including laundry, medical check-ups, GED classes and access to computers and phones. It’s not a one-way street, though. In addition to doing regular work on the grounds, residents are expected to made strides towards finding long-term housing. (Case workers help in that regard). Alcohol and drug use are forbidden.

How does a resident move from a tent to a cabana – or one of the larger indoor spaces at the back of the grounds? It’s a reward to those who exhibit an excellent work ethic and attitude.

We also learned that Pinellas Hope has approximately a 60% successful ‘graduation’ rate; those residents who are able to find long-term housing. A remarkable number.

Before the Lightning started the Community Hero and C.H.A.R.G.E. programs, I had never heard about Sheila Lopez and Pinellas Hope. I’m so very glad that’s no longer the case.

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