- Associated Press - Saturday, April 15, 2017

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (AP) - From the outside, the nondescript, modular structure on the Polk State College campus in Winter Haven doesn’t look like a place where students would want to spend much time.

For Roxan Aupont, though, it is a cherished refuge. Aupont, a first-year student at Polk State, makes daily trips to the small portable, home of My Brother’s Keeper, a service center for students.

Aupont, 17, was there on a recent morning, doing school work in the office of Casmore Shaw, director of My Brother’s Keeper.

“I come here every day,” Aupont said. “He has food over here in case I want to take a snack or anything, and I also come to study or to get some work done because it’s really calm in here.”

My Brother’s Keeper, a nonprofit organization, will mark its fifth anniversary next month. Originally formed as a food pantry for homeless PSC students, it has evolved into an all-purpose resource center, a place to get a meal or grab a snack, groceries or hygiene products.



Shaw and his two assistants also help students find housing, jobs or social services, make referrals for other on-campus assistance and provide a space to study or complete class projects - all of it at no cost to students.

As one of several service-learning projects at PSC, My Brother’s Keeper employs two students each semester as part-time workers.

Reggie Webb, Polk State’s vice president for Student Services, said My Brother’s Keeper is a crucial element in the college’s effort to retain students who might otherwise drop out.

“It’s important because you want to make sure you take care of the whole student, not just academics, because it’s hard to study or learn or pay attention with an empty stomach,” Webb said. “Some students drop out because of academic reasons, but for most it’s life - homelessness, needing food, just the basic essentials of life. … We keep them fed and meet their needs, and they stay around.”

Webb said he knows of only one other college with a similar program.

Shaw said My Brother’s Keeper served about 350 students last fall. Some students come every day, he said, while others stop by occasionally.

The genesis for My Brother’s Keeper came in 2012 when some Polk State students faced precarious living arrangements following the collapse of the housing market. Shaw said a former professor, Carole Toney, detected that some students were in desperate circumstances.

The students seemed to rely for nourishment on bowls of snack bars the professor kept in her classroom. Toney also noticed students lurking near campus parking lots each evening and realized they were waiting for others to depart before settling into their vehicles for the night.

The realization that some Polk State students had no permanent homes prompted Toney - then PSC’s coordinator of veterans’ services - to talk to another psychology professor, Katrina Smith, about creating a program to support them. They collaborated with Jennifer Fiorenza, director of grants administrator, and former Winter Haven Provost Sharon Miller on the idea of a food pantry.

The professors also approached Shaw, who was pursuing a degree at PSC after being laid off from a job in finance, to be the director of My Brother’s Keeper.

Shaw, a Jamaica native, was president of the Caribbean and Floridian Association and had often talked to the professors about students in need.

PSC President Eileen Holden supported the creation of a service-learning project and granted space for My Brother’s Keeper in one of several portables that previously housed Polk State College Collegiate High School.

Financial support comes from donations by companies and individuals routed through the Polk State College Foundation and contributions from Polk State staff members.

Webb said donations average about $5,800 a year.

The college covers the costs of Shaw’s salary and provides two part-time student assistants through a work-study program. Shaw also draws upon student volunteers.

Polk State doesn’t have a food pantry on its other campuses, but Shaw said My Brother’s Keeper serves all students by making deliveries on other campuses.

Hope Presbyterian Church in Winter Haven has been another source of support that arose by chance. Ron Hatley, a church member and a musician, learned about the project through John Anderson, a music professor and conductor of the PSC choir.

While singing with the choir at a 2015 concert, Hatley marveled at the performance of a PSC student on the cello. When Hatley raved about the student, Anderson said the cellist’s playing was especially impressive considering that he was homeless.

“It broke my heart to think there were these young people at Polk State living out of their cars, which I subsequently discovered,” Hatley said.

Hope Presbyterian’s missions committee, which Hatley chairs, soon made a $10,000 donation, drawing upon a congregant’s bequest.

Hope Presbyterian continues to support My Brother’s Keeper. Hatley said the church places a shopping cart outside the sanctuary and asks congregants to donate packaged foods and other items. Hatley regularly delivers the donations to My Brother’s Keeper.

Sitting in the cozy space on a recent morning, Shaw pointed out items donated from other PSC departments, such as a refrigerator and microwave ovens from the cafeteria, storage cabinets from the nursing department and computers from audio-visual services.

Along one wall, tall metal cabinets hold a variety of edibles with long shelf lives - cans of pinto beans, mixed vegetables chicken-and-rice soup and more. Shaw said he sometimes has hot food available for students, though at the moment he needs to replace a broken crock pot.

Shelves below a counter are stocked with toiletries, and feminine hygiene products are discreetly stored in another cabinet.

Originally a food pantry, My Brother’s Keeper has evolved into a general support system. Shaw said he frequently refers students to other offices on campus for tutoring or mental health counseling.

Shaw, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from PSC and an advanced certificate in health care administration from Concordia University, also directs students to outside sources of help, such as the Community Action Partnership, an anti-poverty program.

Shaw has also enlisted community support, as evidenced by a collage of business cards stapled to one wall. Shaw said local businesses have provided networking opportunities for students and even jobs for some.

“These are things that touch my heart,” he said.

Shaw faces a continuing challenge in convincing students to take advantage of everything My Brother’s Keeper offers. He said some students are ashamed to admit they need help and resist visiting the portable after learning about the program.

“We tell them, ‘Listen, no one here is judgmental and everything is kept confidential,’” Shaw said.

The program requires students to present their college identification but keeps no record of their names. Students sign in with their initials only to give Shaw and his staff a way to keep records of services received.

Some students also seem incredulous that free food is available on campus, Shaw said.

“That’s one of the issues - they think they have to pay us back,” Shaw said. “The only payback I would expect is for them to tell someone else who is experiencing an issue and have them come down here.”

Aupont said she learned about My Brother’s Keeper when a professor, Patty Tidwell, brought her First Year Seminar class to the portable. Aupont said she initially felt wary about revealing that she didn’t always get enough to eat.

Aupont, who plans to study linguistics, said she has tenuous family connections and didn’t have the option of living with her parents after high school. She said Shaw referred her to a business partner of the college who owns rental properties and the man placed Aupont in an affordable apartment.

Shaw also helped Aupont find a part-time job on campus. For those reasons, the modest unit housing My Brother’s Keeper has become a second home for her.

“It makes me feel comfortable because before I came here to college, I was scared,” she said. “I didn’t know how the experience would be. Having this place, to me it means a lot. It helps me feel more comfortable being here. It made me open up, made me make friends, know more people.”

Aupont has since introduced other students to My Brother’s Keeper. One such friend, Bethany Reyes, sat with her doing classwork in Shaw’s small office on a recent morning.

Reyes is a first-year student at 16, having graduated early from high school. Reyes, who hails from South Florida, said her mother was unable to support her and arranged for her to live at the Florida Sheriffs Youth Villa in Bartow.

“Sometimes I get hungry, so I come here because I don’t really have money,” said Reyes, a gentle-voiced girl studying musical theater. “It’s a good opportunity so that I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”

At one point, a male student came into the portable and collected packaged foods for another student, who is disabled. A little later, two male students entered the portable and Shaw sprang up to greet them.

Shaw briefly chatted with the men in Spanish and then gave them some canned goods to take home. One student had been to the portable before, Shaw said, and the other was a first-time visitor.

Webb, the vice president for Student Services, said he stops in at the portable about three times a week. Webb, one of eight siblings, said he faced financial struggles in his youth and understands the travails of the students who rely upon gifts of food from My Brother’s Keeper.

“When I walk over and see a student being served and say, ‘How are you doing?’ and look in their eyes, it’s ‘Wow,’” Webb said. “They’re getting something they need and don’t have to feel ashamed about it.”

Shaw said he sometimes gets visits from former students who benefited from My Brother’s Keeper in its early days and have since graduated. Some of them drop off food for the pantry, and others have written checks for the program.

“I’m ecstatic,” Shaw said of that cycle of events. “I’m totally delighted.”

___

Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), https://www.theledger.com

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