A Higher Calling

For UCF students Todd Currie and Alice Neira, feeding the homeless has become a meaningful mission.



Roberto Gonzalez

It’s Sunday evening and in the dorms and apartments surrounding the University of Central Florida, students are studying, relaxing or recuperating as another week of classes approaches.

Todd Currie and Alice Neira are not among them. Instead, they are busy in the heart of downtown Orlando, where they have come every Sunday for the past year and a half to feed the hungry and homeless behind St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church across from Lake Eola.

The 20-year-olds, who run a student group called Sunday Knight College Food Share, walk among the backless wooden benches, saying hello and sharing smiles with roughly 150 people waiting patiently for a hot meal. They walk a little farther, too, to visit with those sitting on the edge of the sidewalk.

Soon, about 25 student volunteers from UCF arrive. They each grab two plates and forks and line up near two long tables that hold eight trays of shepherd’s pie, along with salad, bread, pastries, chips and large orange Rubbermaid coolers filled with juice. After the plates are filled, the volunteers deliver them two at a time until everyone is fed.

Sunday Knight College Food Share was started in November 2012 by Currie, who got the idea while serving as a volunteer with another group that fed the homeless. Sunday Knight operates on donations only, and it is a major challenge to obtain enough student-donated food so that its leaders, Currie and Neira, don’t end up paying for some of it themselves.

When that becomes necessary, though, neither hesitates.

“People are hungry, so we need to be there,” Neira says.

It helps that the UCF community responds via social media. Each Monday, the group invites upward of 100 UCF students to a Facebook event page, asking if they can cook up a tray of the chosen meal. Sometimes the group gets all of the eight trays it needs. Other times, it’s a last-minute scramble.

Help also comes from Straight Street Orlando, a nonprofit organization that conducts feedings behind the same church every Tuesday. Last summer, it agreed to sponsor the Sunday Knight College Food Share and provide funds for supplies like plates, utensils and cups. Straight Street also helps the student group obtain donated food from businesses like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Panera Bread.

The crowd that gathers for the free meal is filled with regulars as well as first-timers. Some of the children look as young as 5. As she walks among the homeless, Neira is reminded of her motivation for continuing this hectic commitment: because she once saw her own family struggle with hunger and homelessness in Peru.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility to give back because of the successes I’ve had since my family moved to the United States,’’ she says. “A lot of people fear being hungry and homeless, and people tend to avoid their fears. It’s important to face that fear because you can give back to people who are living through it.’’ 

Regular volunteer Nya Crum, a biomedical science major, also sees a glimpse of her past each Sunday. While living in Tampa at age 9, Crum and her mother became homeless and had to move into a domestic violence shelter.

“I want to give back because the community helped me when I was younger,” she says.
And these students don’t just feed and run. After everyone has been served, often with seconds and thirds, Currie and Neira urge the student volunteers to engage individuals. Personal stories are told throughout the parking lot, like the one from a newcomer named Dave, who explains how he moves from hotel room to hotel room until his money runs out. He’s then forced to sleep on the streets until he can afford to repeat the cycle. Dave says he’d like to be able to enroll in school one day.

The volunteers’ kindness doesn’t go unnoticed. Says William Johnson, 61, a familiar face at the feedings: “I’ve developed an appreciation for UCF because of the camaraderie they bring to this.’’

After the crowd drifts away, the volunteers begin packing up. But there’s one last thing on the agenda: They form a circle, share any thoughts about the successful evening, pile their hands together in the middle and count off: “3...2...1...Food Share!”

Then they head back toward the university. Both Neira, a political science major, and Currie, who is studying event management, have the work of full-time course loads waiting. But they have perhaps found a higher calling.

“I came to UCF wanting to succeed in academics, and I have, but now I’ve found something that I’m really passionate about and that sometimes takes priority. There can’t always be a balance, but that’s a struggle I’ll have to face,” says Neira.

Happily they face the challenges together: Shortly after Food Share got off the ground, Neira and Currie became a couple.

“Working with someone you already love on a project is great, and I feel blessed to have that,’’ Currie says. “We share ideas, celebrate together when we accomplish something and we’re there for each other when things don’t go well. I wouldn’t want to work with anyone else.’’ 

 

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