STAR OF THE SEA PROVIDES MORE THAN JUST FOOD

From left, Joe Rifice, Debbie Martin, Emily Hopkins and Maureen Vogt. MELINDA VAN FLEET/Keys Weekly

The Star of The Sea Foundation’s (S.O.S.) healthy food pantry in Key Largo is serving a need within the community. A location in Key West opened in 2006 and the second location in Key Largo opened in 2014. The Keys Weekly recently sat down with manager Emily Hopkins, who oversees the Key Largo location, for details on the pantry and how they help our community.

I moved here from Richmond, Virginia, and it’ll be two years this month, May, that I have been with S.O.S. I started first in Key West and then relocated to the Upper Keys location in September 2021. I was first with S.O.S. through a COVID-19 grant as a special projects manager and then became full-time. In this role, I run the pantry, which encompasses Upper Keys education, ordering, managing deliveries and working with the volunteers. 

We currently have two education programs — the YMCA after-school program and Plantation Key and Key Largo School (KLS). We teach them nutrition and get them immersed in healthy foods. It’s a 16-week curriculum where we talk about fruits, vegetables and meats.

At the YMCA, we have a community garden, and we share information on how they grow and grow herbs on our own. It’s really fun, and I like it a lot. The kids learn about fruits, leaves, flowers and living a healthy lifestyle. They also try various snacks such as guacamole or “ants on a log.” Healthy snacks are a great way to get them to try new foods. I was trained in nutrition when I started at S.O.S.

We work with the fifth grade at the schools because they are at an age to enjoy putting the snacks together, making decisions and remembering the information. Therefore, we can go deeper in the fifth grade without being too intense. Kids say, “Oh, I never tried this!” Or they comment on the flavors. 

The YMCA is a great opportunity because they have an after-school program throughout the school year and a summer camp. The YMCA has about 30 kids; about 25 at the two schools.

The classes are usually for an hour. Another fun aspect is the tower garden at the YMCA. We learn about what we are growing, and we always use it in what we are eating.

We are open on Mondays from 1:30 to 5 p.m. for our weekly pantry for families. We operate out of St. Justin Martyr Catholic Church and are so grateful to Father Hilley and everyone involved to be able to use this shared space. The unique thing about the food distribution is that it’s the “client’s choice.” They can come in and pick what they want, which is good. The choice helps cut down on waste that may happen if a pantry is pre-bag.

We offer canned goods, meat, produce, sometimes we can get milk, dairy and eggs. And we also give out clothes, books and kids toys. The food has set limits — two cans of certain things. This week we had whole chicken, fruits and vegetables. They pick up a bag and go around and get whatever they want.

Since most clients come back every week, we get to know them and know how large their family is. Most of them are very respectful and good about not overtaking. The Key West location is open Monday through Thursday, but still, clients can only come once a week, to be fair. Ours is only once a week because we use a shared space with the church — St. Justin’s.

If you come in and it’s your first time, you fill out your name, address, and the number of people in your household. We also need the information each week for our grants.

We order each week through Feeding South Florida. They have the basics, and we order as much variety as possible. We can get salmon, peanut butter and canned chicken, to name a few protein items. We also accept donations as long as it’s prepackaged. The food gets delivered Monday morning, and then we set everything up. 

About 120 people come through a week. It’s funny how the word gets out when the “good” product is gone. We were fortunate last month as we had milk and eggs.

I love the sense of family it is with volunteers or clients. Even if someone starts coming here. We get to know them, and it’s nice to recognize them and see them. Everyone is very nice and comfortable. Some of the kids I teach at the school.

I am so appreciative of our volunteers. We have 10 volunteers on average that come every day, and they all come each week. The first hour or two is the busiest. So it’s great to have everyone here.

It’s amazing to realize that COVID-19 led me down this path. I love the kids and being with the clients. It’s a blessing in disguise. I love it here, and everyone’s amazing. I initially thought it would be six months, but it’s been a couple of years, which is great.

S.O.S. accepts donations such as cold/dry/non-perishable food, books, toys and clothes.The website is https://www.sosfoundation.org/, and Facebook page is sosflkeys.

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Melinda Van Fleet is a sales strategy and success coach/consultant, bestselling author of "Confidence Mastery for Couples and Life & Love Lessons," and speaker. Melinda is the host of two weekly podcasts, "The Good Karma Success Coach" and "Crush It In Sales." You can connect with her more at www.melindavanfleet.com.