For Hajjah Kamara, it’s become a tradition.
Every Friday for the past seven years, no matter the weather conditions or what holiday might fall, the University of South Florida senior treks to downtown Tampa to feed the homeless.
She’s a long-time member and the current president of Project Downtown, a Muslim-based organization founded in 2005, dedicated to improving the lives of the needy by nourishing their bodies and renewing their spirits.
“When you walk along Bayshore (Boulevard) you see so much wealth but ironically just next door there are people sleeping in the bushes,” Kamara said. “That’s something that I take to heart.”
And she is not alone in her thinking. Some 50 to 60 like-minded young Project Downtown volunteers who have signed with the project believe the war against poverty needs begin in their own back yard.
“We are the future and we need to have that connection with the homeless,” said Kamara, an international studies major who plans to attend law school.
She said the food they provide, much of it donated by businesses such as Salem’s Gyros & Subs and Westshore Pizza, is an icebreaker to stir up conversations with the homeless. It give faces to an issue Kamara said affects more than 17,000 people throughout Hillsborough County.
“Contrary to stereotypes you find they are not all alcoholics or people who are mentally ill. A lot have jobs but they don’t earn enough to sustain themselves,” said Kamara, who noted the group often hands out flyers that list resources and contact information of agencies and organizations that might be of service to them.
For the past four years Project Downtown volunteers, who are governed by a 10-member executive board, also have distributed more than 1,500 hygiene bags consisting of toiletry items such as wipes, toothbrushes and toothpaste, razors and hairbrushes. The also host a health fair for the homeless and often have to purchase food when donations are low.
Donations come by way of a sponsorship campaign, which last year brought in $7,000. The group’s annual fundraising banquet also yielded $11,500.
Kamara recalled one evening when they purchased a birthday cake from Publix after learning it was the birthday of a homeless man named Rick.
“He looked stunned and you could tell he was really touched,” she said. “No one had wished him happy birthday in 30 years.”
Mohamad-Waleed Gebarin, vice president of the group’s external affairs, learned about the program while in high school. In addition to helping the homeless, he enjoys the brother- and sisterhood atmosphere of the organization.
In the countless interactions he’s had with people living on the streets of Tampa one stands out above the rest.
“This one guy was just on the edge of suicide and we talked to him and asked if he believed in God, telling him God had a purpose for him on this earth,” Gebarin said.
The man proceeded to tell them he wanted to go home to his family in South Florida, but he couldn’t afford it. With that said, Gebarin and a couple of other volunteers pooled enough of their money to purchase a bus ticket.
“Personally I discourage people from giving money but after talking with him we all believed it would be money well spent,” Gebarin said.
The USF junior said his involvement in Project Downtown has helped him grow “by leaps and bounds.”
“It’s done so much more for me than I have for it,” Gebarin said.
Samera Ahmed, a USF senior and Project Downtown’s vice president of internal affairs, also was drawn into the organization while in high school. At that point it was a small group not yet affiliated with the university or National Project Downtown, as it is now.
Early on the group didn’t have the help of restaurants or fundraisers to support their efforts. They simply combined one another’s donations to buy and prepare meals which then largely consisted of hot dogs, hamburgers or beans and rice.
There are many lessons to be learned through Project Downtown for anyone with a passion for helping people, Ahmed said. The program is open to anyone regardless of age, race or religion.
An especially rewarding experience for Ahmed was being able, through funding approved by the organization’s case-management team, to purchase a new $200 battery for a homeless woman’s electric wheelchair.
The volunteers knew she needed it because she’d been unable to access the site where they served food because of the chair’s sluggishness and unreliability.
“She was really sweet and when we took the battery to her she was so overjoyed,” Ahmed said. The woman told them she had lost her job due to a work-related injury, which eventually led to her living on the streets.
“Tampa’s homeless issue has almost doubled in the last couple of years because of the economic situation and some are college graduates,” Ahmed said. “It’s a real reality check because that could be me.”
To learn more about Project Downtown or to make a contribution visit www.pdtampa.org.