This blog entry comes to us from Atheists of Polk County, a Florida-based volunteer group that is part of the Beyond Belief Network: is a collective of nonreligious clubs putting compassionate humanism into action through community service.
On an otherwise nondescript Saturday morning in April, a text from Kathy Dobson (a fairly new friend and community partner) lit up my phone detailing a need for several families near Ft. Meade, Florida who have been experiencing difficulty in the wake of COVID-19. These families desperately needed food, cleaning supplies, and more, and for one reason or another slipped through the cracks of the established safety net and support services. “They need like 30 bottles of laundry detergent now,” she said. “What do you think about us asking other similar organizations to go in on this together and help these folks?”
This is exactly the sort of community service work we had in mind when we incorporated the Atheist Community of Polk County in early 2019. I tend to be the kind of person to dive in head-first with all of my focus (thanks, ADHD!), so we quickly started collecting items and doing some initial fundraising. What would eventually become It Takes a Village – A Community Coalition was forming.
Polk County is a fairly rural county in Florida, between Orlando and Tampa. By area, our county is nearly twice as big as Rhode Island. With very few exceptions, all food banks in Polk County are faith-based. They do an excellent job in their specific faith communities. Many community members who are not part of a specific faith also want to show their care and support for others, but some express concerns about being made to feel welcome as part of the group, may worry about being proselytized while volunteering, or disagree with some religious charities' use of prayer or scriptural study as a sort of currency to exchange for the services they provide. Whether those concerns are perceived or borne out of personal experience, it highlights a need and opportunity for secular organizations.
Conversely, some volunteers and organizations are hesitant to work alongside open atheists, too. As co-founder/Director of an organization with “Atheist” right in the name, I’ve certainly seen it first-hand. My hope is, creating a coalition like this— which puts people before belief— will be a shining example of how we can all lay down our differences and come together over our shared humanity, and our shared concern for the needs of our communities.
And so our sort-of “merry little band of misfits”— Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lakeland, Red Tent Initiative, Friends Together, Equality Polk, Healthy Start Coalition of Hardee, Highlands, and Polk Counties, the Atheist Community of Polk County, and others— joined forces to fill a gap in service being provided in our county, and to provide volunteer opportunities in an environment of acceptance.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Lakeland offered physical space to store, sort, and pack items along with volunteers of their own itching to make a difference. Heather Norby, Spiritual Life Director, says her group sometimes blends in as “just another church”, and other times is seen as an oddball among traditional faiths. She writes, “The life-sustaining work that needs to be done in this world can only be done when we work together. We are honored to be able to work with other organizations that share the values of love and justice for all individuals, and to be able to bring nourishment to those who need it most right now. The potential that this coalition has to make a difference in our Polk County community is exciting!”
In addition to several individual donations in the initial stages, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office has donated items. One donation included 7 vans full of diapers, wipes, and other essentials. Rose Dynasty Foundation, a local nonprofit formed to support LGBTQ+ youth in a safe, family-friendly environment, is hosting an online teen talent show to raise funds.
Meanwhile, social workers across the county have been connecting families in need with our operation. What started with 25 families quickly grew to over 100.
“It’s important to underscore that these are families that don’t have access to care,” Kathy Dobson said. “They are families that have been missed by traditional services because they don’t have transportation or don’t know the resources that are available. And these are families that are working with social services and social services know that traditional routes wouldn’t be able to get their needs met.”
That led us to build what I think is a unique service model in the food pantry world. And because we needed to be protective of the health and safety of both our families and volunteers, COVID-19 sort of forced us to get creative. If people can’t come to us, we need to go to them. Yet even if we were to take a truck into a few neighborhoods, for example, it would still be too far away for someone who needs it. Instead, by having each volunteer “adopt” a small number of families and make contactless doorstep deliveries, we’re able to assist even the most rural of families and also not overwhelm or burn out volunteers.
What I think we’ve done is create a new take on an old solution, and one that others can adapt and replicate into their own areas of need. This “Community Coalition” doesn’t put all the burden on any one organization to create a service like this all on their own. You don’t need to have the physical space, and the volunteers, and the fundraising network, and the legal expertise, and the connection to corporate surplus or in-kind donations, and the connection to social workers who know the needs best. You bring your piece of the puzzle and connect with other organizations and community leaders to complete the picture. It turns out, there are a lot of folks out there just waiting to be asked, “Will you help?”
Finally, I would again highlight the frustrating reality that families are all too often unable to access existing services, whether by misfortune or by the very design and limitation of the programs being offered. I want to live in a world where we take care of each other, period. So let’s take down those barriers and get to it. But we don’t have to do it alone. It takes a village.
Sarah Ray is Co-Founder and Director of Atheist Community of Polk County, Inc., a member of FBB's Beyond Belief Network. She also hosts the Freethought In Florida podcast. Learn more about or support It Takes a Village at itavpolk.org.