Serenity Gary was 5 when she began tagging along with her grandmother to feed Central Florida’s homeless and hungry.
“But the organizations and churches that we would help thought that I was too young, and they said I couldn’t come back,” she said. “So I decided to do it myself.”
On Now 14, the Oak Ridge High School student, her grandmother and some faithful fellow members of the Taft branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Florida help run Serenity’s Grace, the charity the girl launched when she was 7.
That first year, they served 1,100 people. Now they average 1,100 people a week, providing groceries, toiletries, clothing and even furniture for formerly homeless people who’ve just moved into housing.
At a national Boys & Girls Clubs of America conference in Orlando recently, Serenity humbly shared her story with an audience of young leaders and an appreciative corporate sponsor, Aaron’s, Inc., which surprised her with a $15,000 check for her charity.
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“We’ve been inspired by the work we’re seeing being done here in Orlando by Serenity and (her) organization … and we thought, ‘What can we do to continue to move this movement forward?’ ” said Michael Dickerson, a vice president for the lease-to-own retailer. “Thank you for all the hard work.”
Dickerson would have said more but was drowned out by the cheers of a couple hundred other members of the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Keystone leadership program who had come to hear Serenity speak.
“We’re going to get a box truck, right?” Serenity asked of her grandmother, 58-year-old Karlette “Koko” Karras, after the cheering finally quieted and the two dabbed away tears. “Grandma needs help (with transporting large donations), and I’m not the strongest person in the world.”
Karras said the charity, which has its own warehouse space, has had to turn down donations in recent months — despite being unable to keep pace with demand — because it doesn’t have a way to haul the goods.
On Wednesdays and Sundays, Serenity’s Grace operates a food pantry, one in Parramore and the other off Lee Road, giving away produce, bread, eggs and milk donated by local grocers to families that are living on the edge of homelessness. It prepares food and hygiene kits to hand out to people who are living in rent-by-the-week hotels, in homeless camps and on the streets. It partners with other nonprofits to help people get gently used professional attire for job interviews and new jobs.
And when a family is able to move into housing, it helps find furniture.
Perhaps most important, Serenity and her helpers offer kindness and a smile to people who aren’t often greeted with either.
“She sees no difference in you being homeless,” Karras said. “She sees you just as a person. It’s a judgment-free zone.”
Her nonprofit organization already has had a lasting impact.
“With the help of Serenity’s Grace, I was able to get up and go back into the workforce, so that my children could have an example to better themselves,” said Samantha Walker, now the assistant teen program director at the Taft Boys & Girls Club. “If (Serenity) sees a need, she’s going to find a way to get it done.”
That always has been the case, her grandmother said. “When she was turned away (from volunteering), she wouldn’t let it go,” Karras said. “For her birthday (that year), I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And she said, ‘I want to feed the homeless.’ ”
It’s not that the girl has ever suffered homelessness herself. It’s just an innate compassion nurtured by her family and club.
“Her charity donated something like 30 bicycles to our kids,” said the Taft club’s service director, Anna Dieuveuil. “Then they did our holiday party where each kid received three presents. She just has a big heart. And that’s something we try to teach our kids — you know, somebody is always giving to them, so it’s important for them to give back. But with Serenity, I think it’s just the way she was born.”
Serenity appealed to local merchants for the bicycles and gifts, but much of the $5,000 annual revenue for the nonprofit comes through selling gently used thrift-store donations on the online social commerce marketplace Poshmark. Serenity does the packaging; Karras does the shipping.
Serenity said she has learned a lot about business through her work, but she has learned more about humanity.
“My dream for Serenity’s Grace is to be all over the country,” she said. “I want to be able to supply jobs to people, get them housing, get their GEDs, make sure their mental health is where it should be … and to follow up with them … to help them not be homeless again.”
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