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As a group of people waits in line, Leonor Reales, programs coordinator of the Bonita Springs Assistance Office, calls a number. Two people step forward from the line, and Reales places pre-packed bags of groceries on a cart. Then she reaches into a refrigerator.

“You get cheese, too,” she says. “Part of the program is cheese.”

The couple thanks her.

“You’re welcome,” she replies. “I see you next month, OK?”

The group was gathered for the monthly USDA Commodity Supplemental Food Program distribution for qualifying senior citizens. The program is administered in the five-county Southwest Florida region by Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida and the assistance office is the program’s distribution point for Bonita Springs.

“It’s a nice program and, as an organization, we want to offer it to those identified as eligible seniors in our community since we can offer it to more seniors,” says Teri Lamaine, president and executive director of the Bonita Springs Assistance Office. “We can serve 60 or 65 more seniors. We’ve been at a consistent 30 clients per month.”

To qualify for receiving the monthly commodities box, individuals must be over the age of 60, provide proof of living within the designated service area, and provide proof that household income is at or below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which is $1,287 monthly income for one person or $1,736 for two people.

People may apply at the distribution points, such as the assistance office for Bonita Springs’ residents, and the food bank will send program enrolees a package of food each month to their assigned distribution points until they no longer need assistance.

Vulnerable

“A lot of seniors have need,” Reales says. “Bonita has a high percentage of seniors, and some have almost nothing. They are vulnerable if they need food, the basic need of the human being.

“The partnership with Harry Chapin Food Bank — we are very proud to offer this program to the community,” she continues. “It is good-quality food, easy to apply for the program, and we are very friendly. We treat clients with dignity and respect.”

Each month, the program provides enrolees a 30-pound package that typically contains items such as fruit juices, shelf-stable milk or powdered milk, cereal, canned fruits and lower-sodium vegetables, rice or pasta, pasta sauce, cheese and some sort of protein, such as canned chicken or peanut butter.

“The food is as healthy as possible,” Lamaine says, looking through the contents of one of the June packages. “Based upon availability, we might get fresh vegetables, too, but this month we didn’t.”

Lamaine chats with a client picking up her commodities package for the month, checking to see how she is doing. The assistance office had helped the woman get a job, but her hours had been cut back for the summer season.

“If you need any other help, let us know,” Lamaine tells her. “Don’t be a stranger. We’re here to help.”

Jobs

Lamaine says she frequently runs into people who don’t realize that the assistance office offers help with finding jobs, emergency assistance for housing or utility payments, emergency assistance for needed non-narcotic prescriptions, dental assistance, household budget classes, help with applying for state assistance programs and even help obtaining school supplies.

“Everybody comes in here and is just like, ‘You’re just the Bonita Springs Food Pantry,’” Lamaine says. “We are a supplemental emergency food pantry, but we do so much more.”

The assistance office doesn’t accomplish these many missions in a vacuum. Collaboration and coordination with a network of partners facilitates providing services in the most efficient manner.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Lamaine says these partnerships allowed the office to help an individual and a family experiencing crisis. The first one started with a phone call from a pharmacist in Indiana regarding a Bonita Springs resident who needed a refill shipped of a specialized medication for his life-threatening illness but had exhausted his means of paying for it.

“She said she looked us up on the Internet, said he needs to get his medication order by 3 p.m. today on an airplane from Indiana and asked if there was any way we could help him,” Lamaine says.

Normally the office provides prescription help through a partnership with a local grocery chain’s pharmacy, and the price of a month’s worth of this medication ran into the thousands of dollars, so it was beyond the amount allowed by the office’s regulations. Lamaine then learned the elderly resident was a veteran.

“I’m watching the time in the corner of my computer, and it’s already 12:30,” she says. “My mind triggered to the fact that when I met with the Bonita Bay Veterans Council they said that if I ever had a veteran who needed any type of help to reach out to them if it was beyond our means and policies, and this truly was.”

Nick Romano, president of the Bonita Bay Veterans Council, says his organization’s mission is to help local veterans, and they do so by coordinating with agencies that provide services.

“We have the money,” he says. “We’re able to raise money and all that we collect enables us to help veterans by linking out to other organizations. The guy who needed his prescription filled — Teri called me and said it had to be done by 3 p.m.”

Since the man had no family in town to bring him to the assistance office, Lamaine coordinated with the Bonita Springs Community Policing Unit of the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to stop by the man’s house to verify his documentation proving he was a veteran. The veterans’ council then provided payment, and the medication made it onto the plane by the deadline.

Medical crisis

An hour after the prescription crisis was resolved, a father with five young children whose electricity, and therefore air conditioning, had been off for two days stopped in after he got off work. The family had gotten behind on their utility bills because of paying for a medical crisis. After verifying the family qualified for assistance, Lamaine utilized a partnership with Florida Power and Light to restore the family’s electricity.

“That’s another good partnership that BSAO has,” Lamaine says. “We work with FPL’s assist program through modern technology where I can hit a button on my computer and turn their lights on. For me, the happiest moment was when the little 10-year-old girl came and hugged me around the waist.”

Lamaine says the charity is currently seeking volunteers for the office as well as people to join committees to help update the website, brochures and social media.

“We want the community to know we’re here to help, and we’ve been here to help for 37 years,” Lamaine says. “If people on our city limits of Bonita need anything, we will partner with resources or the United Way. We’ll always find a solution to serving the needs of people in our community who are having a crisis.”

Connect with this writer: @LauraTichySmith (Twitter)

To get help

or to volunteer

What: Bonita Springs Assistance Office

Where: 25300 Bernwood Drive, Unit 6, Bonita Springs

Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday

Info: 992-3034; bonitaassistance.org

To donate or join

What: Bonita Bay Veterans Council

Mailing address: 26660 Country Club Drive, Bonita Springs, FL 34134

Info: bbveteranscouncil.org

CHSP free food for senior

citizens at a glance

What are the qualifications?

  • Must be at least 60 years old
  • Proof of residency
  • Proof that household income is at or below 130 percent of federal poverty guidelines

(One person —$1,287 monthly income; two people — $1,736 monthly income)

What comes in a package?

30 pounds of food worth at least $50

Package typically includes:

  • Fruit juices
  • Shelf-stable milk
  • Powdered milk
  • Cereal
  • Canned fruits
  • Canned lower-sodium vegetables
  • Rice or pasta
  • Pasta sauce
  • Cheese
  • Protein such as canned meat

How often are food packages distributed?

A 30-pound package per individual each month

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