Under the leadership of the revitalized Community Cooperative, thousands of caring people today are working together to help improve and even save lives across Lee County.
As the sun rises across the horizon this morning, most of us will awake to lives that are, more or less, comfortable and familiar in both setting and situation. As we go about our day, few of us will pause to even consider the remote possibility of an alternate reality: a life without shelter, without food, without care, without hope.
Fortunately for many of those who are in need or at risk in Lee County, there exist people who not only consider the possibility, but also passionately commit themselves to changing and improving these lives every day — all under the spirited leadership and vision of an organization called Community Cooperative.
The Community Cooperative of today traces its roots to 1984, when a group of men and women who distributed leftovers to the hungry Sundays after church — some business leaders, some social leaders, some everyday folk — decided to formalize their efforts and create the non-profit Fort Myers Soup Kitchen. Over time, the organization expanded its scope of services and, to reflect that, changed its name to Community Cooperative Ministries (better known as CCMI).
In 2012, Tracey Galloway became Chief Executive Officer of the organization. A highly successful development director for almost 20 years at Edison State College, Galloway saw an entity that “had grown big enough to be run like a business, but was stuck in that little non-profit box. We needed to either cut way back, or reorganize and move forward. We all saw the need, so there was really no decision. Now five years later, we’re really moving forward.”
From once a stand-alone soup kitchen, Community Cooperative today fulfills its mission to deliver innovative food, education and social services — for everyone from infants to older adults — by last year serving more than 185,000 meals and 41,000 school lunches, distributing 600,000 pounds of food and touching 16,000-plus “unduplicated” lives.
Moving forward is an understatement. From once a stand-alone soup kitchen, Community Cooperative today fulfills its mission to deliver innovative food, education and social services — for everyone from infants to senior citizens — by last year serving more than 185,000 meals and 41,000 school lunches, distributing 600,000 pounds of food and touching 16,000-plus “unduplicated” lives.
Just as amazing, they accomplished this good with a budget of only $2 million — funded exclusively by individuals, family foundations and private grants — with 19 full-time individuals. While that revenue is requisite to their success, the real key as Galloway sees it “is our 2,000 wonderful volunteers. They’re our helping hands and feet, and we simply couldn’t do it without them. They work in the kitchen, work in the garden, clean the food, chop it, pack it, put it on the trucks and deliver it. Social services are part of our programs, too. Our volunteers talk to people, help educate them on everything from nutrition to budgeting to resume writing, and a lot more. We have so many opportunities for volunteers. Every day, once a week, once a month, we’ll take ‘em.”
While some people still refer to it as “The Soup Kitchen,” and others know it as “CCMI,” today’s Community Cooperative is a shining example of a do-good organization with a clear mission, a strategic vision and a contemporary, individualistic approach to helping the greater good — served with a side of smart branding.
Because “soup kitchen” conjures up images of downtrodden humans waiting in long lines to be served depressing slop, today individuals visit Community Cafes — in downtown Fort Myers (open six days a week) and Fort Myers Beach (open five days a week) — where “people are given choices, and treated with the kindness and dignity they deserve.”
When folks are in need of grocery assistance, they can visit the Community Market or one of many Mobile Food Pantries throughout Lee County, meet with a “life coach” who’ll help direct them toward positive changes, then have the opportunity to choose the foods they like and are able to prepare — fresh produce, meats, even dairy on occasion — versus handed a bag with an assortment of foods that too often in the past, were discarded later because the clients didn’t like or want those staples.
Since 2006, Community Cooperative has administered the important Meals on Wheels, providing daily food service and a friendly safety check to more than 1,000 homebound elderly, chronically ill or disabled throughout the county — while bringing a welcome smile and human touch to what are too often lonesome lives.
Community Cooperative has also created a Growing Healthy Kids program to assist the 70% of children in Lee County Schools who are entitled to free or reduced-cost lunch. A certified National School Lunch Program vendor, Growing Healthy Kids delivered more than 40,000 lunches to four schools in 2016, “and every lunch was made from scratch in our kitchens.”
Galloway has even enhanced a small social service department into a Social and Educational Resource Services program. Working out of its own Resource Center as well as partner United Way locations, “we share information and hold classes on many resources people may not know are available, or where to even start to get the help they need. We want to help people stand on their own, because if they don’t they’ll never get out of their situation.”
If it all sounds like a lot of work, it is — but as Tracey Galloway will tell you, it’s really much more a passion that she, her staff, her donors and her many volunteers share. “This is one of those jobs when I’m not at work I feel guilty because I want to be here,” she says. “It’s not easy to help as many people as we do. We run into a lot of roadblocks. Our staff works ridiculously hard to do what we need to do, but every day we see some success. It feels great to know we’ve made a difference in someone’s life, maybe even helped save it.”
by John Sprecher