The season of giving has given reason for hope to directors of more than two dozen local nonprofit organizations that received grants from Citizens Bank & Trust. The Polk-based bank’s philanthropic distribution was named 100 Days of Giving to help celebrate its 100th birthday this year.

The grants totaling $100,000 are being individually announced on a four-month schedule that started in mid-November.  KidsPACK, a Lakeland organization that sends food home through public schools, and the first to receive funds, is one of 29 nonprofits the bank said were chosen after an early October application deadline.

Citizens Bank & Trust president Greg Littleton said funds have already been disbursed so each organization could meet the increased demand for services during the holiday period and ease financial burdens due to the pandemic.

The need for help in Polk was big, revealed as dozens of applications poured in Littleton said. The criteria used to narrow the selection was to choose organizations consistently meeting needs on a real and direct street-level approach, he said.

“What we really wanted was organizations involved in helping provide basic needs: food, clothes, shelter, a basic need. What could be more important if they can’t fulfill needs?” Littleton said. 

Littleton said CB&T, prior to COVID-19, had planned a year of anniversary celebration parties at branches throughout the county.

“We realized in the Spring that COVID-19 might affect our [celebration] plans, but we were hoping things would change,” he said.

Littleton said a bank marketing committee that had been meeting for a year put the original plans aside and came up with the idea for helping nonprofits in the county doing tremendous work.

The committee’s original giving plan was to award $10,000 to ten organizations. When nearly 200 applications were received between Sept. 14 and Oct. 9, Littleton said committee members realized the effects the pandemic was having on each agency’s funding and that the needs had increased.

“The agreement was (that) there was almost no way,” Littleton said. “Everyone on the committee wanted to do something for everybody. The money was already allocated so we used it.”

Jinx Chaney, a member of the CB&T board and marketing committee, said the core business belief is that individuals and companies they help are partners.

100 Days of Giving continues the bank’s tradition of making a difference by helping organizations that improve the lives of our neighbors,” Chaney said.

In addition to feeding school children, the winning organizations cover the entire county and include organizations providing food or transportation for the elderly; performing medical services, and assisting the homeless, veterans, women, and foster children.

Along with the varying needs in Polk, Littleton said the committee was mindful that groups are truly diverse geographically. From CB&T’s beginnings in Frostproof in 1920, giving back has been at its core, he said.

Award funds range from $2,500 to one $6,000 check, with announcements of each organization to continue for the 100 days through Feb. 24.

The grants

Seven organizations have been announced by Citizens Bank & Trust as of Tuesday, in the 100 Days of Giving rollout. Executive directors spoke with LkldNow about how funds are being or will be used, and the impact on their organization:

KidsPACK. $6,000. The grant money is being used to purchase food to cover the increase in children served in Polk public schools, Executive director Patty Strickland says. The schools in the program jumped from 63 to 73.  Around 4,000 meals will be distributed through schools for the holidays.

“We’re feeding 2,024 now and will add 58 more children to the program next week,” she said.  “We took the money and brought in a new school that wasn’t in the program. We had a school with 25 children out there who needed food and we were blessed to bring them on.”

Strickland says one of the challenges facing the food bank, located on Frontage Road in south Lakeland, is packing. Seventeen churches affected by COVID-19 restrictions have had to pull back their volunteers, but she says despite the setback they never had to break their stride.

KidsPACK started in Polk during the 2011-2012 school year feeding 449 homeless or hungry children in 31 schools after teachers identified children in need. Each school pantry stocks food supplies needed for weekends and holidays.  

Alliance for Independence, $2,500. The adult day training facility for the intellectually and developmentally disabled asked for funding to help cover operational costs lost due to COVID-19, Director Katie Tinsley said.  Part of the funds will offset the transportation deficit for pickup so parents can go back to work. The facility at 1038 Sunshine Drive E. in Lakeland was forced to close in March and opened at half capacity in September, she said.

“This donation and others are helping us to keep our doors open,” Tinsley said. “We had 23 staff members and 90 clients when we closed. Now we have 13 staff and 50 clients.”

Girls Inc. of Lakeland, $4,000.  Citizens Bank & Trust funding is making a major impact in the community as the pandemic continues and reveals new challenges, Executive director Kay Fields says. The grant she said, is helping to pay for innovative learning at the facility at 1220 W. Highland Street.

“One of the greatest needs we have is online learning for girls,” Fields said. Instead of going to school, girls come to the Girls Inc. facility where Fields says the organization established an online learning hub.

“The funds help to offset expenses we had not planned on,” Fields said. “We’re finding parents are not comfortable with girls returning to school even though some girls would like to go back. Parents drop their kids off at 7:30 a.m. and they’re here till 5:30, so — here all day,” she said. 

Most parents are working, making it more difficult for them to oversee learning, Fields said.  

Inspiration Ministries, Blessing & Hope Food Pantry, $3,000. Pastor Alan Fretto said his numbers are growing because of the pandemic.  The ministry has grown from a small pantry in Highland City serving 250 to 300 people to 1,800 people a week for drive-thru and pick-up.  A system to help with the increased traffic requires cars to assemble in a parking area on Lakeland Highlands and then drive to the pick-up on E. Edgewood Drive.

The grant money, along with other donations, will help purchase meat and fresh produce as well as pay for transportation expenses for the truck deliveries, Fretto said.

“We buy salvaged foods from Feeding America or go to different stores and pick up food,” Fretto said. “We buy fresh produce off the truck and pay for that distribution when it’s delivered.”  Money is also needed for upkeep and food storage costs.

“We see so many elderly, retired citizens on fixed incomes as well as veterans and single parents,” he said. “People come to us in tears saying, ‘I just lost my job.’ ”   

Restaurants Against Hunger, $2,500. Grant Piche, former director of operations for Texas Cattle Company, said his 20-year-old ministry supports those people on the front lines of feeding missions and food pantries. His kitchen is in downtown Winter Haven. The grant came at the right time because the pandemic meant the charity couldn’t host its annual fund raiser for a turkey giveaway for 350 families, he said.

“The biggest time is the holidays,” Piche said.  The ministry has its own produce company and it provides bread for the meals. “My charity buys canned goods, and my bank account was bare.”

The grant money was split, Piche said, with half used for the Thanksgiving Day food distribution and the other half earmarked for the Christmas outreach. 

Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine reception desk

Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, $5,000.  COVID-19 forced the healthcare program for the working uninsured to refocus from growth projections to keeping the nearly 3,000 current clients healthy and out of the hospitals. President and CEO Alice Koehler said.

The grant funds will be used to help defray the cost of medications as well as operations, Koehler said. The facility at 600 W. Peachtree St. cut costs after modifying operations, implementing safety measures and launching a telemedicine platform.

“Being selected as a recipient of the 100 Days of Giving means that LVIM’s staff and volunteers will be able to continue providing this important service to the community, and once again open our doors to new patients.”

Volunteers in Service to the Elderly (VISTE), $2,500. President Steve Bissonnette said the organization would be offering a few options to clients in increments of 100 in the spirit of 100 Days of Giving. “We’re using this award to underwrite the cost of 100 boxes of personal care items to be delivered this month to some of our most financially vulnerable clients,” he said. 

The 37-year-old organization, which serves frail, elderly people in their homes in Lakeland, Auburndale, Bartow, and Fort Meade, has in the past sent out 400 boxes filled with shampoos, toothpaste, toothbrushes and laundry detergent. This year VISTE will do the same, but due to Coronavirus and a change of plans for a major fundraiser, the VISTEBall, Bissonnette said they were looking for folks to help underwrite the remaining funds for all 400. 

“This $2500 will help to cover 100 boxes,” he said. “Each box costs $25 and we’re still raising funds,” he said. “Our clients look forward to the boxes. Many of them have trouble getting out or are low on funds.” 

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