IMMOKALEE – Several faculty, staff, and graduate students volunteered their time in June and July to assist a food distribution project in Immokalee. Headquartered at a Lipman Family Farms packing house, tasks included bagging fresh produce, packing food boxes, and directing traffic in the drive-thru operation.
The event, which supplied food to hundreds upon hundreds of Immokalee families, was organized by the Benison Outreach Center (led by Frank Rincon) and aided by many local companies, growers, and agencies.
Included was The Immokalee Foundation, which invited Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) to join the effort.
“SWFREC has always been a strong community partner, so when the Guadalupe Center reached out for assistance with the food distribution activity, I immediately thought of Julie Carson and UF/IFAS,” says Barbara Hawkes, career advancement manager with the foundation. “Julie immediately got the word out to her colleagues of the need for food for the families of Immokalee and she scheduled her team to attend this activity the following week and for subsequent weeks.”
The Guadalupe Center was established nearly 30 years ago to aid impoverished families in Immokalee. Ellie Ramirez, a programs assistant with the organization, provided on-site direction of volunteers at the food distribution location.
“Per capita, Immokalee has one of Florida’s highest COVID-19 infection rates, an alarming statistic that has generated statewide and national media attention, but also has brought relief groups and support to town,” Ramirez wrote in a guest column published in the Naples Daily News. “The community traditionally faces higher unemployment rates during summer months as the agricultural industry slows, but COVID-19 also impacted adults working in restaurants, retail stores, hotels, salons, tourist attractions and other sectors of Southwest Florida’s economy. As a result, families who never relied on assistance now find themselves struggling to put food on the table.”
Among SWFREC’s frequent volunteers was Gene McAvoy, associate director for stakeholder relations. He called the experience of assembling and distributing food boxes and produce bags gratifying.
“Having lived and worked in the Immokalee area for the past 25 years, my wife, Donna, and I both feel that we are part of the community,” he says. “As a teacher at Lake Trafford for nearly 20 years, my wife has seen many children grow up in Immokalee and has befriended many families. We have many friends and acquaintances in Immokalee and welcome the opportunity to support the community that has become home to us in this time of need.
“There is no substitute for integrating yourself into the community to meet people and learn their concerns and the issues confronting them. We are more than simply a research and education center but an integral part of the agricultural community of Immokalee and SW Florida.”
SWFREC center director Dr. Kelly Morgan also volunteered at Lipman and proudly talks about the center’s efforts during the pandemic.
“It is very gratifying to see the community come together in these trying times,” he says. “SWFREC faculty, staff, and students are always glad to provide time for community efforts.”
Daniel Boakye, a Ph.D. student in the citrus horticulture program with Dr. Fernando Alferez, was also a multiple-time volunteer. He continually strives to better the lives of those around him.
“I am ever ready to offer my help to the next person or any group who may always need my service; that is why I participated as much as I was available,” he says. “I knew virtually no one at Lipman except those from the center, but I saw team spirit par excellence at work in all the days I volunteered. I helped in the packaging of tomatoes, peppers, and onions. And I helped in the distribution of food to the Immokalee residents.
“Generally, I was overwhelmed about the tons of food distributed to the people of Immokalee in these difficult times.”