On average, KAIR serves about 45 people a day and distributes about 12,000 pounds of food a month. Think about that number: 12,000 pounds. That’s about 400 pounds a day, give or take, walking out in the hands of someone who needs it from the administration’s office located in the rear of the Marathon Community United Methodist Church.
KAIR is an acronym for Keys Area Interdenominational Resources. Formed in 1998 by Middle Keys churches, it was an effort to centralize help for those in crisis and avoid duplication of services. And while most need a few groceries to make ends meet, others need much more.
“I’ve seen people walk in here with open wounds,” said Pat, a KAIR volunteer, “and they don’t know where to go or don’t have money for a doctor.”
Others need help figuring out tenant rights or finding a job. Its clients are the ones that otherwise slip through the cracks because of unique circumstances.
Just last week, an elderly man called KAIR because he couldn’t get his ailing wife out of bed and he didn’t have anyone else to call.
“We took care of it. We take care of people who don’t fit perfectly ‘in the box’” of regular social services, said Marjorie Roberts.
That’s the other striking fact about KAIR. It only has one employee. The rest is handled by a band of volunteers whom, with a little help from Roberts, largely organize themselves.
On a recent morning, three ladies — Pat, Phyllis and Deb — packed about 25 lunches and started preparations to organize more than 250 Christmas dinners. They sorted food, restocked the pantry, and repacked the foodstuff into family-size or individual portions. Raquel, a KAIR client, said she depends on the twice-monthly grocery allotment to feed her family of seven that includes herself, her husband, her 85-year-old mother, her brother and three grandchildren. The KAIR-provided meal is likely to be the most festive part of the holiday.
“I’m 53 and I’ve had five heart attacks,” said the former kindergarten teacher, perched on a wooden church pew in the hallway facing the KAIR offices.
With her family’s well being teetering on such a delicate balance, the slightest misfortune can throw the whole clan into crisis. Raquel said that about once a year she needs more than groceries — like help with the electric bill or a gas voucher.
Raquel said Marjorie and the other KAIR volunteers are wonderful.
“They also just give you support. They’ll just sit and talk to you,” she said. “They go beyond what they have to do.”
KAIR has five main functions:
• First and foremost, it’s a certified food pantry. That distinction allows it to receive foodstuffs from the Feeding America Food Bank, the closest of which is in Broward County, that sells groceries for cents on the dollar and also delivers. (Just recently, KAIR acquired a refrigerated van to collect unused or “recovered” food from Publix grocery stores. The van was paid for by a generous gift from the late John Smale.) A peek inside the KAIR pantry reveals everything from day-old bakery cookies to canned soup and boxes of macaroni and cheese.
• It’s also handles the operation of the Middle Keys’ only homeless facility. (See sidebar).
• KAIR helps clients with medical needs.
“We have a low-cost clinic in Marathon, but it’s not FREE,” said Roberts. “We have guys that walk out of the mangroves with a skin infection or respiratory infection and they need help. We send them over to the clinic with a voucher for their co-pay or medicine.”
• Housing needs — and that includes rent and utilities — also represent a major portion of KAIR’s work. Again, the organization will provide vouchers directly to the vendors.
“We have one client that has a steady job at one of the area resorts, but when she’s sick or her daughter is sick, she doesn’t get paid and she falls behind on the bills,” Roberts said.
• Finally, KAIR helps clients with transportation issues. Gas vouchers are especially important. Roberts said that many of KAIR’s clients have children with special needs whose medical care is only available in Key West or on the mainland. A tank of gas can make the whole family’s situation so much simpler.
Beyond those five needs are so many others. School supplies for children. Microwave ovens. A purse or suit for a job interview.
Roberts, who has been on staff since 2005, seems heaven sent. Originally from Delaware, she followed her husband to the Florida Keys. With a bachelor’s degree in social work, a master’s degree in public administration, and 12 years experience serving clients with mental health issues, she seems uniquely suited to this particular job. She answers the phone, interviews clients and directs volunteers with unruffled aptitude wrapped in compassion. Still, she admits, she needs more hands on deck so that she can deal with the other aspects of administration, such as writing grants.
KAIR has an operating budget of about $550,000 per year. About $150,000 of that is set aside for direct payments to vendors such as landlords or the electric company. The Sombrero Beach race is its major fundraiser of the year and, while wildly successful, it only raises $50,000 toward the budget. (Although this year an anonymous donor has agreed to match any new sponsorship monies for the race.) And just two weeks ago, the City of Marathon granted KAIR $17,000 and Independence Cay $16,000.
The rest of the group’s needs are met through a combination of donations and grants. Roberts said donations can be tailored to address specific needs.
“Some people want their donation to be used only to pay an electric bill, or to go to a family with small children,” she said.
There is no “slow” time at KAIR. The need is constant, urgent and year round.
For more information, call 305-743-4582.
In October, the KAIR organization took over the management of Marathon’s only homeless facility — Independence Cay. For now, the two groups are maintaining their separate identities.
“We consider it a pilot program at this point,” said KAIR’s Marjorie Roberts, “but it’s going very well.”
More than anything else, Independence Cay offers the homeless a place to be. Anyone can show up to take a shower or wash clothes. It also operates a soup kitchen seven days a week. Different churches provide a hot lunch on set days. Last Tuesday, it was meatloaf and mashed potatoes provided by the Methodists. And, because of its connection with KAIR, Independence Cay is a good resource for finding services to turn a life around. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are a daily occurrence and organizers hope to help its clients with other problems that typically affect the homeless, issues such as isolation and anger.
Independence Cay also has a group home it operates for men that have demonstrated the desire and will to change their lives. Right now it houses eight men, six of whom are working at least part time.