In the professional-grade kitchen and food storage area, a small team of volunteers swiftly stuff various foods into the sort of big paper bags you used to get at Publix. Around the corner and past the walk-in freezer, chef Christine Matotek is giving a kitchen-skills class to three retirement-age people. There are no grills or ovens in use for this particular class – it’s dedicated specifically to the proper way to chop. Out front in reception, a handful of people wait their turn to be seen in an area that could be mistaken for a small, well-kept bank office. In a corner, shelves hold bananas, lemons, limes, peppers and other fruit-and-vegetable options.
“What we used to have here was a bunch of sweets,” Thomas Pietrogallo says. It’s one modest change. In the three decades that Poverello has sought to help the community, there have been bigger ones.
Poverello – the name means “little poor one” in Italian – sits in a nondescript section of Dixie Highway in Wilton Manors. The building goes back a ways but, nestled between the larger Pride Center at Equality Park and the large lot and industrial buildings of the city of Wilton Manors’ Public Services Department, it looks fairly humble from the street. Don’t be fooled. The simplest description of Poverello is “food pantry with consignment shop,” but that doesn’t begin to tell the story. It offers cooking and wellness classes. There’s nutritional counseling. Special diets are available for people with medical conditions ranging anywhere from diabetes to kidney failure. There are food parcels made specifically for children. There are food deliveries for the homeless. Nearby at the organization’s Live Well Center, clients can use a full gym as well as take advantage of services ranging from chiropractic to acupuncture to reiki circles.
Facility and thrift store manager Mario Rosario has been working at Poverello for most of its history.
“We always had a dream that we could do this,” he says. “But I never imagined it would be like this.”
At the heart of the operation, though, is food – healthy food for people who otherwise could not afford it, and education on how best to use it.
“If you’re smart about your choices,” says Pietrogallo, Poverello’s CEO, “you can really stretch the food you get from us.”
Pietrogallo’s a newcomer to Poverello; he joined the organization last May, around the same time its founder, Catholic priest Father William Collins, died. Baritone-voiced and often clad in the monk-like brown robes of his Franciscan order of priests, Collins began Poverello at a time when his chosen cause was looked down upon by many. In the 1980s, he saw HIV/AIDS up close thanks to his work as chaplain at Imperial Point Medical Center. In its earliest incarnation, Poverello’s goal was simple yet daunting – help those suffering with AIDS who are well enough to be discharged from hospital, but whose continued health and the welfare remained in doubt. Over the years, Poverello grew. And as it grew, treatment of HIV/AIDS grew and changed. Medical breakthroughs and better treatment meant longer life – and longer life meant problems associated with aging and other health problems such as diabetes, liver failure or high blood pressure. So Poverello adapted and became adept at dealing with these other health matters.
This, Pietrogallo says, is a fairly common evolution for charities forged in the HIV/AIDS crisis. Eventually, Poverello leaders looked around and thought that since they had the ability to help people with other conditions, and since the need was there, they would broaden their outreach.
“We’re really not taking anything away from people with HIV,” Pietrogallo says. “But we’re adding clientele who don’t have HIV.”
That expansion has also meant adding another crucial group of people – volunteers. With a small paid staff, the volunteer force of about 340 makes it happen.
“We have 31 employees,” volunteer and HR manager Tania Taveras says. “My volunteers are everything. We can’t make it without them.”
With them, and with donations, grants and sponsorships, Poverello can continue to grow its programs beyond what people might think when they hear the words “food bank.” The old way of doing a food bank, Pietrogallo says, was to simply take whatever food donations came through the door and send them back out to the needy. Poverello accepts food donations, but they also buy a great deal of food with the aim of keeping a consistent inventory on the shelves so that clients are offered consistency.
Sometimes, Poverello also sends clients out into the world for food. The Healthy Foods Gift Card program gives clients a periodic $45 card for groceries. To stay on the program, clients have to bring back the card – to show they haven’t sold it – and bring in each grocery store receipt.
“Only about 6 percent don’t comply with the rules,” Pietrogallo says.
Mostly though, Poverello’s food comes from Poverello. That plus opportunities for health and education allows for goals and results aimed at the whole person. It’s not just about handing someone a bag of food and hoping they do what’s best with it.
“We take it seriously,” Pietrogallo says. “We want to make sure the people out there are getting the best from us.”