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By Amy KD Tobik | Seminole Chronicle | February 15th, 2012

The positive energy flowed Saturday as volunteers of all ages enthusiastically assembled shelves, reorganized merchandise and repainted walls as part of St. Luke's Lutheran Church's latest task to revitalize the much-needed local non-profit organization, HOPE Helps, Inc.  CLICK TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE (PDF)

By Allison Olcsvay | Seminole Chronicle | January 25th, 2012

A soft-spoken woman with a broad smile, Astrid Bartolomei comes every Tuesday to the food pantry she calls “her blessing.” Six months ago, this middle-class mom and former real-estate agent needed help feeding her family, so her friend and neighbor referred her to the place where she herself was getting assistance.

Like many other families in Central Florida, the Bartolomeis find themselves in a gray area following a job loss. With just her husband’s commission-only income to rely on, they still make too much money to qualify for food stamps, yet their budget is stretched too thin to satisfy her 16-year-old son’s appetite.  CLICK TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE (PDF)

By Sean Bower | Seminole Chronicle | January 18th, 2012

chelsea One Oviedo High School student is making a difference by giving aid to the hungry and the homeless with plenty of  help, and even more HOPE.

Throughout the month of January, Courtney Wright, an Oviedo High School senior, and the HOPE organization are  working with the Oviedo Mall to help feed those in need through HOPE's "Biggest Food Drive Ever."

Growing from just a simple senior project to a large scale event, the food drive will set out to break records.

Being influenced by her mother, Christine, who is the resource coordinator for the HOPE organization, Wright  approached Executive Director Joan Faulkner in an effort to make her senior class project an idea that could come to  life. With the bar set high, the proposal was approved and the team got to work to make a bigger difference than ever before.

"We want to hit 20,000 cans because that's what it takes to maintain our 300 families for six months," Wright said. "All I really want to do is sustain it as long as I can, but the whole goal is 20,000 to sustain it for the dry spell."

The "dry spell," she said, is generally from January to June.

Wright, who has racked up 500 volunteer hours with HOPE, found plenty of help from her mentor Faulkner, along with the staff at HOPE.

For those unfamiliar with HOPE, it is a local organization in its fifth year. With a name that describes its very purpose, HOPE is an acronym describing its highest priorities: Housing, Outreach, Prevention and Education.

"We assist families in crisis," Faulkner said. "We have a resource center that includes a food pantry, and we have a thrift store as well. Some of the proceeds from the thrift store help families as well."

But as the mission to attain the "Biggest Food Drive Ever" continued, the group found that there was a lack of necessary space at the HOPE facility. It was at this point that Faulkner turned to the Oviedo Mall for assistance. Sara Steffes, marketing manager for the Oviedo Mall, then opened up a vacant store (the former Kirkland's space) for the food drive.

"We were very happy that they came to us," Steffes said. "They are a well-established, well-known organization, so we're honored to be connected with them ... and it's a great utilization of the space."

Since then, Wright and the HOPE volunteers have been in the mall collecting canned goods since Jan. 3, Steffes said.

Beyond just using posters and fliers to get the word out about the food drive, HOPE partnered with WJRR Radio.

"They've been a supporter for five years at HOPE," Faulkner said. "They are doing something called 'Lend a Helping Can' which is fun. So they're collecting food as well for the food drive."

The other sponsor of HOPE's Biggest Food Drive Ever is Lockwood Self Storage. All of the excess food collected by the food drive will be held in storage for up to six months for HOPE's convenience, Faulkner said.

Volunteers like Alice Beall, of Oviedo, and Peggy Harwood, of Winter Springs, are at the HOPE collection area in the Oviedo Mall Tuesdays and Fridays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. until Jan. 29. Residents are encourage to drop off donations during any of these times.

"I think it's amazing," Harwood said. "I think it's going to bless a lot of families."

An announcement of the total collected items will occur at Oviedo Mall on Tuesday, Jan. 31, at 7 p.m., according to the HOPE website. For more information on how to donate or how to get involved with HOPE, visit their website at www.hopehelps.org.

By Amy KD Tobik | Seminole Chronicle | January 11th, 2012

There's a real sense of history as thousands of people gather for church services each Sunday at St. Luke's Lutheran Church. Several generations of worshippers stroll along the walkway together chatting about their families, their current church projects and plans for the future. This year, as St. Luke's Lutheran Church observes its 100th anniversary, the congregation will be celebrating both their roots in the community as well as their continuous faith.  CLICK TO READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE (PDF)

By Gary Taylor | Orlando Sentinel | December 29th, 2011

Like most mothers, Shanti Suarez-Correa's first concern is her children. Her family already was being helped by the HOPE Helps Inc. in downtown Oviedo when the organization launched its Kids of HOPE Enrichment program in 2008.

Her three children — Madison, 12; Evan, 10; and Destin, 8 — are among about 700 who benefit from the program that provides healthful meals when they are out of school. "It's truly a blessing," said Suarez-Correa, a preschool teacher. Her husband, Robert Correa, lost his job as a medical assistant, and while they struggle to meet their monthly obligations, including a rent payment of $1,000, Suarez-Correa knows her children will be nourished.

HOPE Helps, one of several nonprofit organizations supported by the Orlando Sentinel Family Fund Holiday Campaign, started five years ago when founder Krissy Todd opened a thrift store in Oviedo. HOPE stands for Housing, Outreach, Prevention, Education.

A food pantry soon was added, and in 2008, they tested the Kids of HOPE Enrichment program, said Executive Director Joan Faulkner. It was the idea of the group's resource coordinator, Christine Wright, and was a big hit right away, Faulkner said.

The children served by the program qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at school. "We provide them with lunches throughout all breaks," Faulkner said. It is volunteers who make this and other programs at HOPE Helps work, she said. In fact, Faulkner was a volunteer for about two years before joining the staff.

The organization has about 400 volunteers, many of them part of "The Body," a coalition of 30 churches that supports HOPE Helps. The volunteers are young and old, Faulkner said. For instance, Oviedo High School student Courtney Wright, daughter of the organization's resource coordinator, is involved heavily in the Kids of HOPE program, Faulkner said. Volunteering at HOPE Helps can qualify a student for community-service hours needed for Bright Futures scholarships.

"I think the most important thing is that HOPE is making a huge impact in the lives of these families by making sure they are not hungry," Faulkner said. "Although we have seen an increase in need in the past three years we've been doing this program, we've also been supported by the community, like organizations such as the Orlando Sentinel McCormick Family Fund." Sometimes help is unexpected.

Recently, a Girl Scout troop arrived with 200 lunches that Scouts had packaged. These weren't just plain brown sacks. The girls decorated every one of them. Those decorated lunch bags are a special treat for her children, Correa-Suarez said. "It was like Christmas for my kids when they opened those bags," she said. During breaks from school, Suarez-Correa goes to HOPE Helps to get lunches for her children for the following week. "They really come through," she said. "It's always an abundance of stuff." Each lunch bag includes a small box of cereal, a nonperishable meal such as an individual pasta entree, fruit and two snacks. "It's always healthy stuff," Suarez-Correa said.

HOPE Helps also provides special meals for families on holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. And Suarez-Correa said she cuts down on her expenses by shopping at the center's thrift store, buying everything from clothes to household items.