Sometimes the evidence is obvious; other times it’s as subtle as a secret shame, but in each community you can find signs of hurt, hardship and human suffering. Yet in these same communities you can find the helping hands and big hearts needed to ease that suffering. The latter best explains what sparked the creation of the Big Heart Brigade of the Treasure Coast.
In 1992, a handful of local leaders united behind the belief that charity begins at home—and “home” meant more than a street address, a zip code or even county limits. Formed as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, this small group was determined to make a positive difference in the community through a commitment to hands-on service, 100-percent volunteerism, and reinvesting every dollar donated back to those in need.
Under the motto “Coming to the Rescue,” the BHBTC started out with a toy drive, conducted fund-raising efforts for other nonprofits and graduated to what’s become its signature event—a massive Thanksgiving Day Dinner feeding effort.
In its first endeavor cooking Thanksgiving dinners for the needy and lonely, the BHBTC served 3,000 dinners in Martin County. Ten years later, more than 28,000 Thanksgiving dinners were served to families in St. Lucie, Indian River and northern Palm Beach counties. Each year, the members, which now includes a diverse coalition of firefighters, police officers, civil servants and concerned citizens, set loftier goals—and ultimately achieved them.
In the fall of 2004, two fierce hurricanes battered the east coast of Florida—with the Treasure Coast enduring direct hits each time—and only weeks apart. That year, and more than any other in recent memory, the theme and true meaning of Thanksgiving took on a fresh poignancy. Despite the limits on provisions and manpower, the BHBTC pledged to provide a Thanksgiving dinner to anyone in need and never refuse anyone who asked. That year, 36,000 meals were served.
The next year, the Treasure Coast yet again reeled in the wake of fast and fierce Hurricane Wilma. But even amid recovery, its residents’ prayers and thoughts remained with the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It showed in their giving, too, as BHBTC marshaled enough resources to deliver 4,000 meals and two truckloads of necessities to families in Waveland, Mississippi, a small coastal community nearly washed away by Hurricane Katrina.
Few events expose a community’s vulnerabilities as wholly as natural disasters. But adversity arrives in many forms. As the housing market and construction industry—both vital to the Treasure Coast’s employment base—have slowed, news headlines chronicle the suffering: Foreclosures, up; Unemployment, rising; City and county budgets, decreasing; Crime, increasing.
Amid this environment, BHBTC decided to concentrate its efforts exclusively on the Treasure Coast, as our partners in Palm Beach County opted to do the same there. Tough times require tough decisions—but as the organization grew in size and reach, the commitment to helping the less fortunate in our respective backyards commanded renewed vigor.
Despite many signs of affluence, BHBTC knows how to look beyond the Treasure Coast’s initial landscape. Staying closely connected with our community, we contact administrators and guidance counselors at every school to better identify families in need as well as eligible recipients for our scholarships. We also regularly collaborate with churches, the Dunbar Center, the Hobe Sound Childcare Center, United Way, Martin County Fire Rescue, Meals on Wheels, the Veterans Association, the 20/200 Foundation, Children’s Home Society, Helping People Succeed, and many civic organizations. With each year we are trying to expand our service area and number of meals we can provide.
By coordinating efforts with these and other charitable groups, BHBTC has been able to provide a hot Thanksgiving Dinner with all the fixings, to the needy, lonely, shut-ins, the elderly, single parents, underprivileged children, broken homes and other individuals and families that might not otherwise have a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.
For anyone who can’t make it to any of our feeding locations to pick up a meal, we deliver them to his or her door. We’ve also modified our menu to include take-out. We understand that despite the need, the prospect of having to go out and sitting down outside of your own home can be intimidating and humiliating. That’s why BHBTC is devoted to serving dinner– and preserving dignity.
Those in need who want to eat Thanksgiving dinner at home but lack the means to make that a reality can pick up an uncooked turkey, along with boxed stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberries, rolls and desserts. This gives the children of needy families a gift that goes beyond the meal—and that’s a memory. Many of us cherish certain holiday memories without ever pausing to linger over the possibility of never waking to the smell of a baking turkey, or helping prepare the side dishes. The stories and testimonies we get for helping make such memories are very heartwarming and inspirational.
The impact on the community has been tremendous. Every year hundreds of people come down to lend a helping hand. Volunteers come from all walks of life, including truck drivers, entire youth groups, congressmen, county commissioners, retirees, single parents and their kids. Some of these people have been volunteering for years. And every year they come, they bring more friends and family members with them.
The cooking and preparation usually begins early in the week before Thanksgiving and volunteers will work non-stop, through the night into Thursday morning and even on Friday when all leftovers are provided to non-profit groups such as food kitchens and veterans’ organizations.
Every morsel is delivered to someone in need. Our volunteers show up when asked, where they prepare, carve, portion, package and deliver meals by the thousands. It becomes a gratifying and growing experience for anyone who gets involved and gives our young volunteers a dose of reality and what they can do to help.
All of our volunteers truly understand how one person can make a difference in the lives of so many—and that being thankful and giving others reasons to be thankful extends all year. From volunteering at the Visiting Nurses Association Air Show, The Arts Council’s Poker Run, Soroptimist International of Stuart’s annual fundraiser, Artsfest, the Explorer’s Club, Project Graduation, Wheels for the World and Firefighter Olympics, to supporting 20/200 Foundation for the visually impaired, to giving out thousands of dollars in service-based college scholarships and to buying armored vests for six local firefighters and National Guardsmen deployed to Iraq, we take our motto of “Coming to the Rescue” to heart.