My heart finds a home again in new aid center

Orlando, the City Beautiful, is hurting and painfully moving through the grieving process that may continue for years. The city known for its world-class entertainment and theme parks is slowly recovering from our nation’s largest gun-violence massacre.

In addition to this emotional trauma, at least 37 percent of our Central Florida citizens are daily facing the pain of our economic reality, trying to survive in this city making less than $2,000 a month. In spite of our emotional and economic uncertainty, Orlando Hope is on the way.

Fifteen years ago this month, a small church in downtown Orlando had a huge vision and launched what we thought would be a small 6,000-square-foot food pantry. On Sept. 1, 2001, we opened with big plans and little funding. Ten days after opening the outreach center, the reality of the Sept. 11 attacks on our community and nation hit home, and suddenly our little vision was meeting the needs of hundreds of families a day.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of hurting families have come to the converted warehouse to receive help and hope and a hand up. The memories of the families and children who have been helped have been humbling. The heartache that people endure is overwhelming. The volunteers who have served faithfully is inspiring, and the donors who have given unselfishly is touching.

Our journey together has been filled with unimaginable joys and indescribable heartache, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s been the greatest and most fulfilling days of my life. I will always maintain a love for the downtrodden, the underdog and the dark horse. My heart has been at the 150 W. Michigan St. campus and it always will be, but this month my heart is moving.

This month, in partnership with Calvary Orlando and the leadership of Pastor Ed Garvin, I will once again be helping to launch a big vision from a church with a big heart. Orlando Hope will announce a new community center in northwest Orlando — a one-stop shop that holistically offers our community a campus that will provide food assistance, medical care, legal aid, GED classes, child care, counseling and prayer, and so much more.

Orlando Hope will be a place where hurting people can come and receive professional assistance, but most important, it will be a place to feel our heart of compassion and receive much-needed help.

Orlando … hope is on the way.

Several months ago, I became convinced that although we have done much together, we could do more. I recently had the privilege of meeting Calvary Orlando’s pastor, Ed Garvin, who has the same passion and compassion for hurting families. After our meeting, two things were obvious to me: It was time to launch a new community center together; and I was convinced that my heart had found a home again.

Calvary Orlando is the church I grew up in, from 1968. It was the church in which I felt compelled to dedicate my life to serving those in need while attending Edgewater High school. It was the church that hired me, after I graduated from the University of Central Florida, as the high-school youth pastor.

And eventually, it was the place where I would marry my wife, Tammi, 31 years ago. Emotionally, it is fitting for me to come alongside this great church and its leadership team to build a place of compassion and hope.

With more than 400,000 working poor people in our region, we have our work cut out for us, but over the years, I’ve discovered that our community is filled with loving and generous friends who support heartfelt vision.

Our community is full with caring and compassionate churches that realize we can’t tackle and overcome the problem of poverty alone. Our community is abundant with companies and corporations that will get behind start-up nonprofits that have the heart to change people from the inside out to become self-sufficient.

In 2001, I saw firsthand how our community stepped up in the midst of pain, sorrow and hurt to reach out to others in need. I am confident that in the midst of tremendous pain, heartache and economic hopelessness, Orlando will rise to the occasion once again.

Orlando … hope is on the way.