Says Joe Maddon: “The volunteers are the unsung heroes. Without them, none of our efforts occur.” Every month, the Respect 90 Foundation will salute a distinguished volunteer from the communities of Tampa Bay, Chicago, Mesa, Arizona or Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Respect 90 will present a $1,000 grant to that volunteer’s charity. Should you have someone who is deserving, please let us know.
Sophia Renee | Pinellas Hope
Maybe it’s because she has the trained eye of an accomplished fashion photographer.
Or maybe it’s because, as a child growing up in Tampa, her mother helped shape her view of the world and the importance of treating everyone you meet with kindness and compassion.
Or maybe it’s just because she wants to.
Whatever the reason, Sophia Renee sees the world through a special filter. When a chance meeting in 2006 with a young homeless man living on the streets of Savannah, Georgia, led to an unexpected friendship that included weekly lunch meetings in the park, Sophia vowed that one day she would do her very best to address the broader issue of homelessness in America.
“I was living in Savannah for a time. For me, it is a deeply spiritual and beautiful place. I don’t know if the city still struggles with homelessness, but when I was living downtown, there was a large homeless population that would congregate near Forsyth Park, a beautiful public garden about two blocks from where I lived,” says Sophia. “I would see tourists and tour groups walking through these beautiful squares and streets taking photographs and admiring the beauty of their surroundings— and yet there were people sleeping under park benches that no one seemed to see or want to see. The dichotomy of that was striking to me.
“There are a lot of things that need addressing in our society, but for some reason what always spoke to my heart were those unseen people.”
All of which explains why every Wednesday, you will find the willowy brunette at Pinellas Hope, a shelter in Clearwater, Florida, that provides a safe living environment and the necessary support for hundreds of homeless adults who are working to become self-sufficient.
While her work and lifestyle kept her traveling around the world for much of her young adult life, the Tampa native returned home in 2008 to slow down and to be close to her sister and her niece and nephews. Shortly after, she met her significant other, Michael. She continued to take photographs, eventually becoming a highly regarded member of the St. Petersburg arts community. Her images and photographic essays have been the subject of two internationally published monographs and several large-scale exhibits. She also owns and operates her own digital media company.
By the time the opportunity to work with Pinellas Hope came along, Sophia knew it was the right time to redirect some of her energy and give back.
“I got involved with Pinellas Hope about five years ago,” recalls Sophia. “I was part of a community outreach program that was started at Church of the Isles in Indian Rocks Beach. We were looking for an organization that we could help. Our primary focus was on poverty alleviation. We zeroed in on Pinellas Hope because we liked the overall theme of what they were doing—the fact that they weren’t just sheltering people but were really working to get the homeless in our area reacclimated into society. We appreciated that there were case managers in place and professionals who were helping to address the deeper issues that had brought the people to this place in life.”
Sophia’s church group focused on the kitchen and providing food, a function that is handled at Pinellas Hope almost exclusively by volunteers. Their goal: provide a meal a month. Sounds easy, right? For a small church with an older congregation, it is not. Feeding 200+ people even one meal 12 times a year costs approximately $10,000. Although Sophia helps raise the funds and facilitate the logistics that keep this program working, she is quick to point out that without her small but dedicated group of volunteers at Church of the Isles, the “table ministry” would not be possible.
Says Sophia: “It is a group effort. I am proud to say that for the past five years we have provided one or two meals a month and a very large celebration at Christmas time that includes carolers and a wrapped gift for everyone at the shelter without interruption. God has given us the means and the support and the generous people we need to run this program. I continue to be so grateful for every single person who helps make this happen.”
However, Sophia —whose mother instilled in her and her sister a healthy respect for giving back and living their lives with gratitude —wanted to do more.
“I had gotten to know a lot of the residents and I had seen some people come and go and some come back again,” she says. “I thought there might be a way for me to work with them directly and just be a friend, a kind and refreshing presence in their daily lives. I felt like what we were doing in the kitchen was wonderful, but then we left. I was left with no real perspective or understanding of the deeper meaning of service-work as it related to their daily lives. So, I decided I wanted to work directly with the residents as an on-site volunteer. ”
In the summer of 2017, she reached out to Pinellas Hope personnel. They suggested the front desk might be a good place to get educated. She worked two eight-hour shifts a week while learning the ropes.
“That’s just the nature of who I am,” she admits. “I have to understand what it is I am doing, so I jumped right in, and have been here every Wednesday since and on multiple days when my schedule allows it. I help the residents set up their morning and afternoon chores. I get them what they need in terms of their toiletries. I answer the phones, help man the front desk, train new volunteers. If someone comes in off the street, I can talk about the program and get them the information they need. I am able to do more that some of the other volunteers are comfortable doing simply because I’ve been here awhile. I know the residents and they are comfortable with me. A lot of the residents have become friends, I am not ashamed to say.”
One of those friends is Rick, a resident at Pinellas Hope for the past year, whose life changed forever when his wife and daughter were killed in a terrible automobile accident.
“When I lost my wife and daughter, I fell completely apart. I still have not recovered. When I became homeless, all my friends disappeared,” Rick shares. “None of them wanted to admit they knew a homeless person. Sophia became my friend. She is my friend. There isn’t anyone here she doesn’t share a friendship with. What this place does—what she does—is give you an opportunity to lift yourself up. She cares about me and everyone else up there,” he adds with a sweep of his arm toward Pinellas Hope’s elevated outdoor deck that serves as a dining area and meeting room.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” assesses Sophia. “I personally don’t know what it feels like to be without food, without shelter. I have always had more than I needed or wanted. I don’t know what it feels like to have the vast majority of people cross the street to avoid me. I can only imagine how hurtful that is, how damaging that is to a person.
“My main reason for being here more than anything is to show the people here that I see them—that I truly see them. I believe I have been able to do that.”
Pinellas Hope’s Janie Scheiber concurs: “Many of our clients are hurting and have come here from very difficult circumstances on the street. Sophia is truly sensitive to their needs and connects with them personally. Beyond being caring and empathetic, she’s always keeping busy with important tasks and being such a great support to the clients and staff. I know that if I’m needed somewhere else, I can leave the front desk in Sophia’s capable hands and everything will run completely smoothly.”
Not long after she started, Sophia became aware that the veterans at Pinellas Hope were hoping to have a large-scale flag pole and American flag installed on the property. Their efforts had fallen short.
Through her contacts with the Journal of Special Operations Medicine, an internationally renowned, peer-reviewed medical journal initially started for the Department of Defense, she not only was able to get the project done, but even arranged for a retired lieutenant colonel to attend and facilitate the flag raising.
“You can’t do everything but if you see an opportunity and you can help and just make something happen, you have to at least try,” Sophia says.
“There is a perception about the homeless that they are all takers, that they are all drug addicts, that they are all standing on the street corner trying to get a handout, and that they are unwilling to work for it,” says Sophia, her passion to battle homelessness never more evident. “What I have received from people that I have helped— by offering a sandwich on the street or simply saying hello— is that there is an enormous sense of gratitude in their eyes. Just the fact that you have seen them and acknowledged them makes a difference. It may be the first ‘hello’ they have had in days, even weeks.
“I don’t pretend to know what every person holding a street sign on the corner is doing with the money they receive. What I am concerned about are the people who are in a program like this who are trying to get their lives back on track. What I am concerned about are the chronically homeless, people who have been wandering around the streets for years because they are mentally ill or victims of some sort of trauma that they have never dealt with. What I am concerned with are some of the stories that I have heard on the deck at Pinellas Hope from people who aren’t addicts, who aren’t alcoholics, but have gone through situational traumas that have seriously impacted how they live and feel and think. It isn’t all black and white. There are a lot of different situations that bring a person to this place, and that’s what I’m trying to make people aware of.
“I have a lot of friends who are people of means. They admire what I do, but they don’t get it and that’s okay. They don’t hear the stories. They don’t see the people, really see them the way that I do. They don’t see the kind of courage and strength it takes to try to overcome their circumstances and how hard they try to stay in this program and make it work for them. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for anyone who fails or falls and gets right back up again. We all make mistakes. We all have our stories. Hope and faith and friendship are what helps most of us go on. I think every person deserves that, regardless of their circumstances. We all need someone who will believe in us.”
– Rick Vaughn | Executive Director, Respect 90 Foundation
Pictured (from left to right): Danielle Husband, Sophia Renee, Janie Scheiber
For more information on Pinellas Hope, please visit PinnelasHope.org