When one offers a cup of water to a thirsty stranger or a bag of groceries to a needy family, there’s no telling who’s watching — or better yet — who might step up to lend a helping hand.
Members and friends of Altamonte Springs Seventh-day Adventist Church in Florida, United States, found that out recently as they prepared for their weekly food giveaway. The group welcomed Bob O’Malley, who serves on the Altamonte Springs City Commission. Commissioner O’Malley oversees the neighborhood where the church is located. He responds to residents’ concerns and makes sure they receive basic city services. It’s his responsibility to understand what’s happening in his district.
Altamonte Springs church pastor Dion Henry invited the newly-elected commissioner to observe the church’s food drive. When O’Malley arrived, he was dressed and ready to work, not just observe. The commissioner helped volunteers unload the food truck and moved boxes. “This is a wonderful project, and I want to help,” he said. “It fills a real need in the community. It’s great that the church does this every week and that it’s happening in my district. A lot of families are struggling, and it’s wonderful that the church is helping them out.”
Cars fill the church’s parking lot every Tuesday. Some recipients arrive hours before the distribution starts. As cars line up, volunteers lay out an array of fresh fruit and vegetables, meats, cheese, eggs, canned goods, bread and pastries, pet food, and water.
Recipients are grateful for the assortment of fruit and vegetables. Lisa Martin, a local resident who has come to the food drive for two years, says, “With the healthy food they’re giving away, I don’t have to go to the grocery store. I used to go just to get cat food because I feed them before I feed myself. Now I don’t have to do that because they even have cat food. The food they offer is really healthy. I share the food with my neighbors and my parents.”
Apart from the food, recipients are also touched by the kindness of the volunteers. “These are the kindest people I’ve ever met, anywhere.” Martin said. “When I come to the church on Tuesdays, I see them working so hard, but they don’t [mind]. They just want to serve the Lord by serving people. I’ve never seen a church do this. This is special.”
People come to the food drive for different reasons. Oleg and Lyudmila Karpik fled war-torn Ukraine and had just arrived in Altamonte Springs when they came to the food drive. The Karpiks lived in the city of Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine, less than 100 miles from the Polish border. “We are very grateful for what the church is doing,” Oleg said. “We’ve only been in Altamonte Springs for one week. We haven’t received all our work permits, so our money is limited.”
As the Karpiks offer thankful prayers for their resettlement and free food, they also pray for friends and loved ones who struggle to survive amid the bloodshed of Ukraine’s year-long war.
Liz Butler, who has two children, says the food drive is helping her get out of debt. “This saves me US$200 a month. I don’t qualify for any other assistance. Food is expensive. With this food we are able to have a healthier diet.”
Community service has long been a hallmark of Altamonte Springs church. For several years the church operated a soup kitchen. “Volunteers gave a devotional message, then served a hot meal and gave away bags of groceries,” Sonya Pusey, the church’s community services director, said. “Volunteers would give away about 50 bags of food each week. Unfortunately, the program stopped in March 2020 because of COVID and there was no activity for 12 months.”
In August 2021, the lingering COVID threat prompted the church to forgo its soup kitchen. Working with AdventHealth and a local foodbank, eight dedicated volunteers began loading food into cars. Today, more than 30 volunteers staff the distribution. “We don’t advertise because people are asking to volunteer. Even some of our recipients volunteer,” she said. “They thank God that we’re distributing food every week. That’s a rare thing. People are grateful for the food. They show up and tell their friends and neighbors.”
Statistics show the growing need for the program. In August 2021, volunteers served 7,292 individuals; in 2022, they served 27,346 people; and through May 2023, 14,455 people. This year, 2,900 people are being served each month, putting Altamonte Springs church on track to serve more than 34,000 people by year’s end.
After witnessing the operation, Commissioner O’Malley expressed his appreciation for the program. “It’s great to see churches and nonprofits with programs like this. I hope, in my role as commissioner, to spread the word, look for more volunteers, raise awareness of this program, help identify grant opportunities, and pursue those opportunities,” he said.
Henry is grateful for the growth of the food drive. “We give God the praise for [the] impact that we’ve had on the community. The progress has been amazing. We’re getting volunteers from church members and non-members. These volunteers are passionate about their service. They serve in a loving, compassionate way.”
Though the food drive has grown significantly, Henry says more work needs to be done. “In the future we want to expand into other forms of social services. In addition to providing food, we’re already helping people who want to upgrade their healthcare. We want to help people get housing and further their education. We want to take a person from despair and desperation to a point of deliverance.”
Henry sees community service as a vital part of gospel ministry. “My appeal to other pastors is to find ways to connect with the community. That’s how churches thrive. That’s how they grow and impact society.” Already Henry sees the difference that Altamonte Springs church is making in the community. Others are taking notice. “Local organizations approach us, saying, ‘We see what you’re doing. How can we help?’”