In a fortuitous bit of holiday kismet, this week's Savage Love column saw Dan Savage advising a reader who was feeling a little seasonally blue that "helping others is an excellent way to maintain your sanity." Along those very same lines, we decided to put aside our usual "12 Strays of Christmas" photo essay and instead point out some local organizations that help Orlandoans in need. We've highlighted 12 that caught our eye during this very difficult year — some formed as a result of the pandemic, some trying to keep up their mission amid new challenges posed by it — and they're all doing amazing work worthy of a few of our increasingly scarce dollars. This list is by no means exhaustive, and we both beg your pardon if we've omitted some local dynamos as well as encourage you to make your own "12 Ways" lists. But if you are able, try to give something this year and restore a tiny bit of magic to a very strange holiday season.
1. Everybody Eats Community Fridge
The first entry on our list is also the newest, and it wears its rawness in two graceful ways: Young founder Sashauna McKain is inexperienced in the business of philanthropy, but hunger is the most basic problem we face — and a fridge full of freely available food is the plainest, most direct solution. McKain and her co-founder, Vonika Colas, heard about similar projects popping up in cities across the nation, but they couldn't find one here. So they reached out to East End Market and made it happen, as simple as that. Anyone can place produce or packaged food with a visible expiration date in the fridge. Anyone who needs it can take food out of the fridge. Everybody eats.
2. Second Harvest Food Bank of Central FL
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of size and service, Second Harvest Food Bank is doing its best to keep up with heartbreakingly high food insecurity, but the available resources are being stretched thin. The nonprofit organization collects and distributes food to six Central Florida counties: Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia. Right now they're distributing nearly 300,000 meals a day, double the usual number, and if you can't donate dollars, Second Harvest is putting out the call for volunteers. If you are able to give of your time either with food preparation or distribution, please consider it.
3. Cast Member Pantry
Cast Member Pantry was started in the early days of the pandemic by Emily Lartigue, herself a furloughed Walt Disney World employee, to get food into the hands of Disney employees in need. Furloughed and laid-off "cast members" can make appointments to visit the pantry and receive free groceries, pet food and baby supplies. Back in September, the Pantry had already seen 7,000 appointments, and the pace hasn't slowed down. The Pantry recently expanded operations to help Disneyland employees in the same boat out on the West Coast.
4. Feed the Need
Started in late March as the pandemic took hold in Florida, Feed the Need is an offshoot of 4 Rivers Smokehouse owner John Rivers' 4Roots nonprofit. Feed the Need has done weekly drive-through food distribution in partnership with other community organizations for the duration of the pandemic and, as of this writing, has served more than 1.5 million meals to Orlandoans in need so far. And they're not stopping anytime soon.
5. Greater Orlando Performing Arts Relief
Greater Orlando Performing Arts Relief is a newer charitable organization dedicated to assisting local arts and entertainment industry workers who have seen their livelihood dramatically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but it's not simply for pandemic relief. In partnership with St. Luke's United Methodist Church, GOPAR offers services including financial assistance, food resources, physical and mental health resources, and volunteer opportunities. Local playwright Michael Wanzie eloquently described GOPAR as "a permanent charitable organization for actors and people who work in the arts, who fall in distress on a year-round basis, and not just because there's a national crisis going on."
6. Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando
Lauded as the "Best Place to Adopt a Pet" in our Best of Orlando Reader's Poll this year, the Pet Alliance of Greater Orlando tirelessly works to find good homes for thousands of dogs and cats a year, while in the meantime providing them food, care and housing at their two no-kill shelters. Besides these shelters, the Pet Alliance also runs three veterinary clinics that offer low-cost medical services to animals of all sorts. The Pet Alliance has distributed more than 30,000 pounds of food to local pet owners, and now they need your help to stock up their own food bank so they can keep doing food giveaways in the community and feed the residents of their own shelters.
7. The Center
"Our mission is to empower the LGBTQ+ community and their allies through information, support and advocacy," Joél Junior Morales, director of operations at the Center, told Orlando Weekly earlier this year. And it's a mission the staff at the two Center locations in Orlando and Kissimmee are deeply committed to. Though they've had to adjust a lot of the services they offer because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they still undertake a wide range of counseling, health serivces, computing, employment, and financial assistance programs.
8. Central Florida LGBTQ+ Relief Fund
As the federal and state government utterly failed in providing economic relief to our most vulnerable during this ongoing pandemic, communities are left to take up for one another. This LGBTQ+ Relief Fund is a powerful example of mutual aid and collaboration between organizations and advocates. Funds are raised via a GoFundMe page; the OneOrlando Alliance reviews applications and assesses community need, and the Contigo Fund maintains financial oversight to ensure that 100 percent of the funds go to "support those most marginalized in this crisis ... in particular transgender, non-binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming individuals, undocumented immigrants, and people of color who are self-employed or working in the service economy." So far more than $33,000 has been raised.
9. A Gift for Teaching
A Gift for Teaching is a local nonprofit that provides free resources and school supplies for teachers to give to students in need. The organization currently serves 287 public schools in Orange and Osceola counties. The pandemic has forced the organization to adapt operations somewhat — their free store/warehouse, Pencil Boy, has now switched to an Instacart-esque online ordering and curbside pickup model, for instance. But what hasn't changed is the importance of their work. "The need is probably greater now because teachers are making less money [and] parents that have lost jobs can't fully supply their students," explained Trevor Cox, dean of Cypress Creek High, to News 6 as the fall term began this year.
10. Planned Parenthood
Although a more woman-friendly presidential administration is taking over in January, anti-choice activists have needlessly restricted Planned Parenthood's mission on the state level year by year, like a slowly strangling vine, and the need for low-cost reproductive medical services remains crucial. Planned Parenthood needs your help to continue offering men, women and trans persons birth control, annual exams, prevention and treatment of STIs, cancer screenings, and, yes, abortion referrals. Sensitive, non-judgmental care that emphasizes the agency and dignity of male, female, non-gender-conforming, disabled, pre-existing-condition-having, or poor humans? What a radical idea. Almost sounds like ... Christianity.
11. Tech Sassy Girlz
Tech Sassy Girlz is a nonprofit on a mission to empower middle school- and high school-age girls in Central Florida to pursue careers in STEM. Through a combination of "college preparation, career readiness and mentoring," this organization looks to address the shortage of women and minorities in the various science and technology-related fields. In October the group held a virtual conference where attendees could network with professional women in tech and attend workshops. To cap off an otherwise challenging year, TSG was this month awarded the Rosa Parks Diversity Leadership Award.
12. United Arts
This list goes heavy on nutritional and financial aid, because in 2020, more people than ever in our community find themselves in the precarious situation of literally surviving. But we'd be remiss not to acknowledge that while food and shelter keep us alive, art makes life worth living. Please give to United Arts, which oversees funding and education grants to all of Central Florida's arts organizations, large and small, so that they can continue to provide entertainment, critical insights, beauty and community harmony.