TAMPA — In the 1970s, Sheliah Youngblood found herself divorced and raising her two small boys alone with little child support.
She was determined to make it on her own. She struggled but is proud to have survived the difficult financial and emotional times.
Decades later, the memory of her experience lingers.
“It stayed with me,” Youngblood said. “It was a seed growing within me.”
Nine years ago, that seed grew into Our Sisters — Our Friends of Tampa, a nonprofit Youngblood formed that is geared to helping those struggling like she once did.
The organization tries to provide a daily meal for Tampa’s homeless. It helps pay expenses like rent or an electrical bill for people in need, provides clothing and gives out vouchers for groceries. Every two weeks, Youngblood hands out groceries from her East Tampa home.
The organization hosts a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at Ragan Park in Tampa and has hosted a dinner gala for local women seniors with teenage boys serving as hosts.
Her organization also helps veterans.
“You have a lot of veterans out there who are homeless. And why?” Youngblood asked. “They served this country. They are out there and who is hearing them? Do they have to commit a crime before we actually hear their stories and their cries?”
Youngblood said her agency tries to give people a sense of hope during trying times.
“I can share my story with them,” she said. ”Sometimes people just need a listening ear and to know that someone cares.”
Youngblood spends countless hours helping others, though she still has struggles of her own. She’s diabetic. She is blind in her left eye; her right eye has limited vision.
Her poor health doesn’t stop her from her mission. Our Sisters, Our Tampa, she says, is “what keeps me going.’’
“This was my purpose in life, my journey.”
Tonya Lewis, the founder of the local nonprofit Children With A Vision, drives Youngblood to events and fundraisers. The two recently started collaborating so both groups could help more people and keep expenses down.
“She has the passion,” said Lewis, of Tampa. “She cares. She inspired me.”
City Councilman Frank Reddick has known Youngblood for almost a decade. He hopes to have the city give her a commendation next year recognizing her work.
“She does so many wonderful things that go unnoticed,” Reddick said. “She’s a wonderful person, very special. While she’s still alive and still able, she wants to give back to the community.”
Youngblood’s nonprofit is a small operation. She and board members host dinners, fish fries and other fundraisers to help sustain the organization, but finding money to keep operating is a constant challenge.
As always, she doesn’t get discouraged by the struggle.
“I’m not a quitter,” Youngblood said. “If I shut down, who is going to help the people? Where’s the hope?”
“I always thought, ‘What if it were me?’” Youngblood said. “It was always the what if. Would someone help me or would they let me go astray?”