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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

One sandwich at a time: Student-led nonprofit A Reason To Give supports Gainesville homeless population

Students make, distribute 150 to 400 bagged lunches a week to homeless people

Student volunteers make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at Sigma Phi Epsilon on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023.
Student volunteers make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at Sigma Phi Epsilon on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023.

Under the glaring Florida sun on a small fraternity house basketball court, a group of dedicated students has turned their love for service into a recipe for change. 

Gathering every Sunday morning, the UF student-run nonprofit A Reason To Give has worked to serve the Gainesville homeless community for over seven years, making more than 150 bagged lunches a week and collaborating with a variety of Gainesville organizations and homeless shelters. 

The organization began in 2015 as a small service-based club in the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house backyard. Since its founding, the club has gained a strong base of consistent members and created a mission to eliminate the stigma surrounding the homeless population in Gainesville. 

Gainesville’s homeless population is on the rise, with 641 homeless people in Alachua County. Out of this total, 450 homeless people are living on the streets and 191 are staying in shelters, according to the North Central Flordia Alliance for the Homeless and Hungry January 2023 survey. 

Klea Gjoka, a 21-year-old UF biology senior and vice president of the group’s outreach, said the bagged lunches play a key role in supporting homeless people in Gainesville. 

“We work to break the stigma by being able to provide those bagged lunches every week and connect with the community,” she said. “I think one thing that I love about us is that the byproduct of this is that we actually get to connect with the entire community of Gainesville.” 

To keep up with the growing homeless population, the organization runs a sandwich-making event every Sunday at 11 a.m. until it runs out of bread. 

Plastic picnic tables are placed throughout Sigma Phi Epsilon’s basketball court, and three to five students gather at each table to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and organize popcorn and Oreos into Ziploc bags. 

Raquel Shor, a 21-year-old UF nutritional science senior and co-president of the organization, said making the sandwiches is not only a service opportunity but a social activity. 

“I absolutely love it because you stand around, you talk to your neighbors, you make some sandwiches and you put them in the bags,” Shor said. “It’s really low stress. We play big booty remixes. It's like a little club. It's really fun, and we're all goofing off and having a great time while we do it.”

After bagging the lunches, members from the club’s executive board travel to downtown Gainesville to distribute them, giving about two lunches per person. 

The club also provides a portion of the lunches to Street Medicine, a group of medical students who perform check-ups on homeless people. Any remaining lunches are sent to GRACE Marketplace, a local Gainesville homeless shelter. 

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Distributing the lunches every Sunday and witnessing how thankful people are when they receive them has become a rewarding experience, Shor said. 

“We wear these bright orange shirts, and when we go downtown, everybody knows that it's us,” she said. “There'll be crowds of people coming up to us and being like, ‘Oh, the orange shirts are back!’ It kind of becomes a part of their week, and it’s really rewarding to know that they’re waiting on us really excited.”

Christian Rodriguez, a 20-year-old UF APK junior and vice president of the group, said the club also works with various Gainesville nonprofits and businesses, often pairing with two different organizations to volunteer with every Sunday. 

The club has participated in fundraisers with businesses such as Blaze Pizza, Chipotle and Yoga Pod as well as partnered with organizations like Helping Hands Clinic and other sororities and fraternities. 

The organization is planning to host A Reason To Ball, a basketball fundraising event scheduled for the spring semester during March Madness. 

“It's everything we want to do,” Gjoka said. “We want to include other people, and so having people from other organizations sign up their team and stuff like that, it's just fun.” 

Participating in fundraising events and volunteering with the organization is also an opportunity to destress from overwhelming classes and a busy schedule, Gjorka said. 

“We like to think of it as our social hour because we're so busy with school and stuff,” she said. “I'm always having fun. This isn't doesn't seem like work or ‘Oh, we have to go.’”

Madison McGuire, a 21-year-old UF psychology senior and vice president of the organization’s programming, said the weekly meetings helped improve her mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It was our freshman year, and we were staying in Springs, and being cooped up in my dorm was horrible,” she said. “But coming here, I always look forward to every Sunday, just getting to bond over the sandwiches and meet new people.” 

Whether it’s the camaraderie of spreading peanut butter on sandwiches with friends or traveling to different parts of Gainesville to distribute meals, the organization offers students a chance to meet new people and form new bonds while making a difference in Gainesville. 

“We’re all friends, here and outside,” Gjorka said. “It’s fun seeing the people that we provide lunches to, when they recognize us and see our big, bold orange shirts and go, ‘We didn’t know if you guys were coming today.’ It makes it feel like what we’re doing makes a difference.” 

Contact Alexandra Burns at aburns@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @alexaburnsuf.

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