CLEARWATER, Fla. (WFLA) – “Hope Villages of America, Inc.” is providing help to those in need in Pinellas County, from providing local food banks with aid, to helping those dealing with domestic violence and to other people in Pinellas County experiencing homelessness or in need of affordable housing.
Formerly known as “RCS Pinellas,” the nonprofit was established in 1967 “when a total of 15 congregations of different faiths and ethnicities came together provide help for those in need,” according to the organization’s website.
Kirk Ray Smith is the current president and CEO of Hope Villages of America and is passionate about fulfilling its mission, though he’s only been at the helm for five years.
He told WFLA that the nonprofit supports over 80 food banks and pantries throughout Pinellas County, including some even on college campuses.
“One thing I don’t understand is hunger… for some reason I just can’t seem to get my mind wrapped around hunger in America,” he said.
The nonprofit also has a goal of keeping families experiencing homelessness together. According to Smith, most shelters “will not take you” if you have a child.
The organization also funds a safe house for women and children facing immediate danger from domestic violence. A resource list is provided for men needing help with domestic violence issues.
To get families back on their feet, Hope Villages of America also helps with affordable housing through the city of Clearwater. Smith explained they work with the city to provide vouchers so families can “shop” for a place to live. Families often pay up to 30 percent of their income, and Hope Villages of America will cover the rest of the cost through that voucher program and fundraising.
“I believe that I am Hope Villages, I’m an example of every person we serve. Although I’ve never been homeless, I know what it’s like to feel abandoned, to feel given up on, forgotten,” Smith said of his own experiences.
He believes a person’s experiences are what drives them.
“So I tell people all the time, I don’t have a job, I have a purpose,” he said.
Smith also spoke about being visible in the Black community for young children to be inspired by him.
“I know when little Black boys of color, little Black girls of color, when they see me, they see opportunity. You know, ‘you can do it too,'” Smith said. “I want young people to see me sitting in this chair and say, ‘man, if an idiot can do it, so can I.’ Because I’m not different from them.”
Like many nonprofits, Hope Villages of America suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, as they rely heavily on volunteers. Through the struggle, Smith remains hopeful, and hopes that the world has learned something throughout this pandemic.
“One thing that I would hope, is that people would have, if not sympathy, at least empathy, and understand that we’re all 30 seconds, 30 minutes, in some cases 30 hours or 30 days away from our reality being where we can’t feed our families,” he said. “When you see a BMW at our food bank, during the pandemic, that will wake you up.”
To help assist, those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org.