By Dale Madison
Since 1986, The Poverello Center has provided lifesaving food and living essentials to Broward County residents who are living with HIV/AIDS, and who meet basic specified qualifications.
For Tom Smith, CEO of Poverello, his service to the organization, and the clients whose needs it serves, has spanned more than 20 years. It started when Smith heard about a Roman Catholic priest named Father Bill Collins, who served at St. Coleman Parish in Pompano Beach. At that time, Collins was working to find sponsors to assist a needy family at Christmastime. Smith went to St. Coleman, banged on the door, and asked to speak to Collins, who explained the troubling circumstances: The distressed family had five children, and three were HIV-positive.
Although initially the plan for the assistance called for raising as much money as possible, and using it to purchase clothing and toys for the kids, enough was raised to get the family food, as well. After that inspiring success, the core group of volunteers decided that they wanted to keep the project going. The next year, Smith held a fundraising event at his home, and decided that it would benefit young men who were infected with what many called the “gay flu.”
“We realized that so many of these young men were being shunned by their families, and many were being abandoned by them,” Smith recalls. “That first year, we set up long banquet tables, and charged a minimum $25 per person donation, and each person had to bring a covered dish. About an hour in, there was a knock on the door, and a rush of drag queens poured in, shouting, ‘We’re here to perform and to help.’ We turned the living room into a dressing room with foam rubber, eyelashes, powder, lipstick, and make up of all kinds everywhere. At one point it looked as if a drag queen had exploded. We didn’t have a stage, so we took one of the banquet tables and collapsed the legs, laid it on the ground, and it became the stage. During the evening they blew out the speakers on my sound system, but they just kept going. We raised over $3,700.”
Smith had stumbled onto something: A formula for success. “The next year, Charlie Mielke and Tony Dee, the owners of Chardee’s restaurant in Wilton Manors, underwrote the entire evening. That year we raised enough money to help purchase a new truck for Poverello, because the one they had—you could sit in the cab, and see the street below you, sort of a ‘Fred Flintstone truck,’” he adds.
Times have changed, but the need hasn’t. Today, Poverello serves more than 3,000 clients. This month alone, the group will distribute over 3,000 boxes of food, with a bill running in the neighborhood of $96,000—an expensive neighborhood, as you can see. And next year, county budget cuts are likely to translate to a 50 percent reduction in funding for food banks. “It’s been a tough year so far, but we are doing everything we can to turn things around. Our 22nd Annual Bowl-AThon is coming up [this month], and we are hoping to have a stellar year,” Smith adds. (As a matter of fact, he roped me in to help get items for the event’s silent auction, as well as to emcee—my fourth year, so how could I say no?)
Smith is also proud that Poverello has a new home, located at 2056 North Dixie Highway, with expanded hours, which the upbeat CEO hopes—despite funding cuts from every level of government— will allow the organization to help more clients than ever before.
“The City of Wilton Manors has gone out of their way to help with the project,” he says, noting, too, that once completed, the project will be “green-friendly,” and ready to continue serving the community for many years to come.
For more information, visit Poverello.org.