What do you think when you think Boca Raton?
Many think of lush lifestyles, modern architecture, and laid back beaches. However, minutes from the chic storefronts of Mizner Park – East of Federal Hwy and just North of Glades Road sits “Boca Helping Hands” – a warehouse-turned food pantry and soup kitchen.
More on the amazing organization
Boca Helping Hands is a community based organization formed in 1998 by a group of local religious organizations who felt a need to help those encumbered by hunger in the area. What was once serving hot lunches three days a week and distributing bags of groceries to families, has now revamped into a food center that is open six days a week; along with two additional campus’s that host the “pantry program,” delivering bags of food to families in need.
But let’s not stop there, because Boca Helping Hands now offers a multitude of programs. From their original “Hot Meal Program,” BHH now has a resource center that provides help to residents in crisis situations like eviction and utility cancellations, while also providing no-cost job training programs to help cross the bridge from basic human need to self-sufficiency.
In 2016 alone, BHH served 54,721 meals!
That’s enough to feed one person for over 49 years! But how does a place like this run? Its name does not precede itself! BHH is supported by individuals, corporations, foundations, schools and over 300 volunteers!
Some personal experience working for BHH
I was able to volunteer about a month ago on a hot and sticky Saturday afternoon. I arrived a couple hours before lunchtime and opened the door inscribed with the red and blue heart and “helping hands” logo. Even as a volunteer I did not receive anything short of that. As I walked into the reception area, I was shown the process of how each person arriving registers to receive a meal, a “pantry bag,” and/or a “hygiene bag” if they so desired. The number of bags are based off of how many live in the household.
Behind the front desk lay the dining area; with about 20 or so tables. The kitchen laid out as a buffet style serving line. Posters hung from the ceiling promoting “healthy eating,” reminiscent of my awkward middle school days. In one corner, a life-size stuffed bear imitating a mascot peered at all who entered. It sat staring out into a sea of empty tables, soon to be full of over-indulged stomachs and over-indulged hearts.
With hair-net in tow, a friend and I were given two large jars, 10 loaves of bread and a roll of saran wrap. We were asked to prepare as many PBJ sandwiches as possible. (My favorite!) After about 80 sandwiches, some laughter, and newly-formed carpel tunnel from scooping peanut butter, the jar was empty and our job was near done.
A freshly permed and snowy-haired woman scurried in and out the back door past me wearing a blue apron. I was told to go into the back and help a few others “cross of barcodes.” I entered the food pantry and pallets upon pallets of perishable food-heaven stood before me. Men and woman, from ages 5 to 75 walked around feverishly, while laughing and sharing camaraderie and purpose of what each person came to do. I was given a sharpie and a box of donated food and told to draw a line through the barcodes, which prohibits the visitors from returning any food at their local Grocery store. (While one may think this is an easy task, drawing lines in 200 jars of peanut butter can be tiring. Also, yes, peanut butter always happens to be common theme in my world.)
I caught conversation with a lanky college-aged kid named Tim. He mentioned that he volunteered here a couple times a week during his off time. I asked why he liked to volunteer here:
“It just makes my day that much better when I get out of myself and do something for someone else. I like coming here. It puts my world into perspective and makes me grateful for the little things. The only other things I would be doing with my free time is playing video games, or watching TV, so why not do something that gives back?”
Inching toward 11 AM, a line formed out the front door with visitors hungry to get a hot meal. Volunteers stood in their designated places ready to register visitors, serve food, take out the trash, wash dishes, etc. The Golden Oldie’s gently hummed over the loud speakers and the doors opened. Visitors flocked in and made their way through the serving line, exchanging an aura of gratitude for a warm plate of comfort.
“He’s a regular,” one volunteer mentioned to me as we watched a 1985 creaky old’s-mobile pull up outside, a once white box spring covered in dirt and leaves was tethered to the top of his obsolete time machine.
“That’s his bed. Every night he puts it somewhere outside and sleeps, but he comes here almost every day for a meal.”
Struggling to get out of the car, his gut bubbled over his off white pants and he made his way inside. Each volunteer greeted him with a humbled smile, ready to serve and provide him with a hot meal.
By this time the dining room was slowing down. Visitors had circulated in and out but a slow murmur still lay throughout the room; some talking, some laughing, some gorging themselves because they knew it would be their last meal for awhile.
My job was to transport used serving trays from the top of the trash can to the busy kitchen to be washed. As visitors approached me, most of them let out a stomach-stretching sigh trying to make room for air from the food they had ate.
One woman who was tall, dark-skinned, and didn’t speak much English came up to me and handed me her tray. I offered her a wry smile and asked her where she was from.
“I take the bus down here every weekend from West Palm Beach.”
I took her tray as she continued to tell me her story in broken English about her two hour bus ride to Boca once a week. She lived with her Aunt and Uncle in a one-bedroom apartment off of Old Dixie in West Palm Beach. She had currently traveled from Haiti to start a new life and was trying to find employment.
Once 12:30 PM hit, the doors were closed and the last of the visitors had left. The music had become silent as a couple of kids offered to wipe down tables and stack the chairs in the dining room. I was thanked for my work from one of the regular volunteers, followed by “It’s been another great day here! We hope to see you again!”
As I walked to my car I was awe-struck with the generosity and potent love that I had just witnessed. Privy to my own selfishness, I had been so caught up in the latest vanities and happenings that Boca has to offer, and was ignorant to the fact that homelessness and poverty is one of the biggest “happenings” around here, let alone the world.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, about 795 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment. That’s 1 in 9 people!
As a safe-haven for the needy, a treasure for the homeless, and a reward for the well-to-do, it seems I’ve only dipped my toe in this wonderful program. I can’t wait to volunteer again. If you get the chance, I highly recommend this “happening” by volunteering, donating or just by familiarizing yourself with this serious problem in our society today.
If you would like to donate, BHH takes many Non-perishable items. Please do not donate any opened, expired, or glass items.
Drop off times are Monday-Friday from 9:00 AM to 3:30 PM. (Closed on Holidays) at 1500 NW 1st Court, Boca Raton, FL, 33432
Check out Boca Helping Hand’s upcoming event, “Bowling for Bread” happening in August, here.
Also, you can also checkout their awesome website, here.