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The Rev. Joe Atkinson said the visit activated a mental light bulb.
A local public school teacher was visiting the Gulf Coast Hope Center of Gulf County, Inc. one afternoon when she began to tell Atkinson a story.
One of her students, she explained, had been distressed that day due to a half-day of school.
The teacher, surprised at any student turning crying over less school, wondered why.
The reason, the young student explained, they would not get to eat the rest of the day when they got home. That school lunch, skipped due to the half-day, was the student’s last each day.
“When we shared that story it was like somebody took a knife and stuck it in my chest,” Atkinson said.
And, so, he set to work.
Next Saturday, May 24, the brainchild evolving from that proverbial knife becomes action when the Gulf Coast Hope Center hosts a “Community Food Distribution.”
The goal is to provide a bridge, and hearty meals, for students and their families that qualify for free-and-reduced meals at the public schools, which is roughly 60 percent of students at Port St. Joe Elementary School.
“We want to provide food to assist those families that have children that are free-and-reduced lunches,” Atkinson said. “We don’t want a child to go hungry this summer.”
The distribution is being called “the first annual” as Atkinson hopes the response from the community – both in need and outreach to the Hope Center – will enable the event to become a fixture of the calendar.
Atkinson hopes to have a program in place by fall to assist children in need as they return to school.
On May 24, two tractor trailers are scheduled to arrive at the Hope Center, located at 772 W. U.S. 98 in front of Five Star Collision in Port St. Joe.
Those trucks will be ferrying 10,000 pounds of food provided by A Hand Up International Ministries, which is partnering with Centennial Bank, Sunshine Shuttle and Limousine and the Hope Center on the food outreach.
The collaborative group also includes God of this city Ministry out of Panama City.
From 12-4 p.m. that day, the Hope Center staff and volunteers will distribute the food to qualified families, seniors and, depending on the amount of food remaining, the remainder of the community through its food pantry.
To qualify, families must have a student on free-and-reduced lunch in the public schools and provide verification of that status along with a photo identification.
Sunshine Shuttle will provide a van/bus that will carry children from Wewahitchka Elementary School that morning to the Hope Center and back.
The food distribution will also be available for any seniors in need. Arrive at the Hope Center during the afternoon hours and receive a bag(s) of food.
“We want to be sure to provide them also during these summer months,” Atkinson said.
The assortment of food will be varied, Atkinson said and the size of the family will determine how much food will be provided.
“There will be canned goods, meats, dairy, veggies and fruits,” Atkinson said. “The meat will come frozen and we’ll keep that (under wraps) until somebody picks it up.”
While the food is flowing to grateful hands the free concert will provide a musical backdrop to festivities and the Hope Center staff and volunteers will be grilling hot dogs and hamburgers and refreshments will be on hand.
“We are excited,” Atkinson said. “That is something we are doing that day and we want the community to be aware.
“We could still use some volunteers for that day and we will also welcome any and all financial donations because we want to make this an annual event.”
For more information contact Atkinson at 705-1107.
The Gulf Coast Hope Center donned a new tag and new community involvement in January. The Hope Center added “of Gulf County, Inc.” to its moniker, becoming an entirely community-based and operated non-profit. The board of directors is comprised entirely of Gulf County residents. The Hope Center no longer has any connection of the Panama City Rescue Mission.
Rev. Joe Atkinson left the Rescue Mission to become the full-time director of the Gulf Coast Hope Center of Gulf County, Inc.
“I love it here and what I am doing,” Atkinson said. “We are not enabling people here, we are trying to empower them.”
The Hope Center has tweaked its guidelines for assistance to better identify the needy, their needs and put them on a road to self-sufficiency.
The Hope Center finalized their non-profit operating status in January and ramped back up, Atkinson said, largely through financial assistance from the Alfred I. duPont Foundation. Charles Costin donated the legal work on incorporating as a non-profit.
Since January, Atkinson said the Hope Center has assisted more than 75 individuals and families.
More is needed and Atkinson noted that the bulk of the economic support for the center remains Matt Scoggins of Five Star Collision on whose land the center sits.
Financial donations are welcomed and needed, he added.
“We are good stewards over the resources people have enlisted with us,” Atkinson said.
The Hope Center is open 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. ET Monday through Friday.