CELEBRATE COMMUNITY: Caring Coach delivers hope

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By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | hosbourne@nwfdailynews.com

FORT WALTON BEACH — For the past four years, the “Caring Coach” mobile food pantry has delivered meals to some of the most rural communities of Northwest Florida.

On Tuesday, volunteers from Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida loaded bags of food into a large white cargo van and headed out to the community of Baker.

The 40 families who showed up at the Baker Area Recreation Center received a bag filled with peanut butter, jelly, canned tuna, fruit, spaghetti, spaghetti sauce, meatballs, rice, soup, vegetables, a loaf of bread and a gallon of juice.

“What we serve depends on what we get as far as donations go,” said Michelle Lucas, Caring Coach coordinator. “Publix gave us a large donation of bread this week, so we incorporated that into the meals.”

In 2013, the Caring Coach rolled into action after Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida realized the growing need in rural areas like DeFuniak Springs, Baker, Freeport, Cantonment and South Walton County.

“If someone is struggling to get food, we wouldn’t want to put a burden on them to pay for gas to come get a bag of food from our pantry (in Fort Walton Beach),” Lucas said. “So, now we bring the food to them.”

At first, Catholic Charities staff and volunteers drove their own vehicles to St. Margaret’s Catholic Church in DeFuniak Springs to deliver food. In 2014, Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort donated one of its used cargo vans for the project. Members of MORE (Men of Resurrection Catholic Church in Miramar Beach) played an important role in helping the project get off the ground, and the Rotary Club of Crestview provided grant money and volunteers to bring the Caring Coach to Baker. 

Caring Coach volunteers make one stop per month to each of the five locations. To receive the food, individuals are only required to have a valid ID, according to executive director Mathew Knee. The food, he said, is enough to feed an average-sized family for four days.

“The Caring Coach really has become a normal routine for the people we feed,” Knee said. “If people need more help than just once a month through our Caring Coach, we refer them out to other agencies in our areas.”

However, Knee said that the Caring Coach isn’t solely for feeding families. Instead, it is a way for Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida to see firsthand all the needs of the communities.

 “We help families financially, with immigration, pregnancy, adoption, benefits and job services,” Knee said.

Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida’s stationary food pantry and mobile food pantry are run on both monetary and food donations. Knee said the nonprofit prefers money so the workers can purchase the food that is most needed.

“It’s better that way because then we can make sure that everyone can get the same essentials,” Knee said. “We need to make sure everyone is getting their proteins, starches and vegetables for their meals.” 

Lucas said the Caring Coach is always looking for volunteers to deliver food to the community. She said for those with full bellies, food is often taken for granted.

“I think that when you live in a community, you should reach out to the people in your community,” she said. “For me, providing food for people is of the utmost importance. We just don’t always think about those who don’t have a lot of food.” 

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