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Melissa Clark is a single mother of five who just ended a year of living in a shelter and working two jobs until the pandemic took one of them, but she was all smiles Saturday as she and her kids were stocking up on free food, clothing, school supplies and even toys.
The City of Fort Lauderdale teamed up with the Broward County School District’s Homeless Education Assistance Resource Team [HEART], civic-minded groups and other volunteers to provide for some of the county’s more than 3,000 homeless children.
Clark, 32, her 13-year-old daughter and four boys — ages 7 to 12 — were among those attending the event at the J.C. Carter Park gymnasium, at 1450 W. Sunrise Blvd., just east of Interstate 95.
“There’s a lot of people truly in need but they’re scared to speak up because it’s an embarrassment,” Clark said. “I was that person, but closed mouths don’t get fed.”
Families could get free groceries, clothes, shoes, books, toiletries, cleaning supplies and other necessities. In Fort Lauderdale alone, there were 362 children at 16 elementary schools identified through the HEART program as needing help, said program supervisor Carole Mitchell.
“It is a difficult time for the students but our goal is to keep them engaged in school [and] educationally stable so, hopefully, they will make it through school,” she said. “We can do our part in breaking the [cycle] of future generations in poverty or homelessness.”
There are students from kindergarten through 12th grade whose families have faced eviction or foreclosure that left them living with friends, relatives, in shelters, in hotels and motels, in tents in public parks and in cars, she said.
COVID-19 made matters worse for many, particularly the homeless, said Kevin Carter who brought his 10-year-old son, Kevin Jr. to pick up books and other school supplies.
“Some people need the help because of the pandemic,” he said. “Everybody’s trying to get back to normal.”
It’s not the first time this event has been held and it won’t be the last, said Jorg Hruschka, Fort Lauderdale’s Chief Service Officer.
“This is our seventh event” he said. “We have served about 75 families and about 200 kids.”
Other events will be held around Broward County in the future. Until then, Clark will keep smiling.
“I keep a smile on my face for others,” she said. “Just because you’re going through hard times doesn’t mean you have to look like you’re going through hard times.”