In late 1998, Stephanie Bowman of Orlando was a homeless addict, foraging for food in dumpsters with her two young daughters.
Not too long afterwards, Bowman found herself in a state-funded treatment facility and her girls in foster care. This turning point, though painful, was the beginning of a journey that did more than just get Bowman clean, sober, and reunited with her children. It eventually inspired her to help other Central Florida residents, who are experiencing food insecurity, homelessness, and may be battling alcoholism or drug addiction.
One Woman’s Story, A Community’s Success
Bowman, who was featured in People magazine’s first-ever Kindness Issue and was on The Kelly Clarkson Show before the pandemic, tries mightily to keep the focus on the nonprofit she founded, One Heart for Women and Children (often shortened just to One Heart), not her own personal story. For Bowman, it’s the nonprofits’ donors, partners, volunteers, and the community’s successes that really matter. However, she acknowledges that if someone finds inspiration or relatability to her own story, she’s OK with it. Just like One Heart, her goal is to bring people help and hope.
15 Years of Service
This year, One Heart celebrates 15 years of supporting community members. (Officially, One Heart for Women and Children received its IRS tax-exempt 501(3)c status in 2011.)
In the beginning the group held a Christmas party for children of women in alcohol and drug treatment. That first Christmas party included 54 children, last year 1,612 children celebrated Christmas together at the annual party.
From those humble beginnings, One Heart has grown to include a food pantry, a thrift shop, and a monthly hot meal (which was suspended during the pandemic but will be coming back in June, check OneHeartOrlando.org for more information).
According to Bowman, One Heart’s mission is not just to be a supplier of food and clothes, but rather a valuable resource for those needing transitional support. That includes among other things educational help, access to life skills and parenting courses, as well as assistance with finding a drug and/or alcohol treatment program, mental health services and other support.
We Are One
Although One Heart first focused on helping women and children, it has assisted many men as well. One Heart’s transparency promise states that it will never discriminate based on race, color, religion, gender, gender expression, age, national origin, disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status.
Melvin Pierson, a recent resident of Orlando, was not turned away when he came to One Heart in need of some help. He says he feels blessed and respected by everyone at One Heart.
Bowman stresses that One Heart is a place for everyone to feel welcome no matter their circumstances. “When people walk in, we want them to feel just like anyone else: whether they had a shower that day or haven’t had a shower in a month; whether they walked there or drove a fancy car. We want every single person who walks through the doors to feel the same, which is to feel hope and to feel loved,” she says.
Providing During the Pandemic
During the pandemic One Heart didn’t shut down. Not even for one day. “We could see that there was a need. Of course, we had no idea how enormous it would be, but we just knew we couldn’t let our friends down,” Bowman says. Friend is what Bowman and many of the staff and volunteers at One Heart call the community they serve. “We aim to make our support relational, not transactional. It’s just part of how we operate,” Bowman says.
According to Bowman, during the pandemic people would come to the nonprofit’s parking lot in College Park and be surprised to see One Heart was still operating. “I’d say the hardest part was that we couldn’t give hugs anymore. But I’m glad to say we could still provide many of the resources people needed. And we sure got and gave a lot of air fist bumps,” Bowman says.
From resume help and mock interviews to referrals for family counselors and medication management with psychiatrists when needed or requested, One Heart has been supporting a lot more friends since the pandemic. The nonprofit’s food expenses went from $300 to $1,000 a day in 2020 due to the increased community need, and it hasn’t stopped. Through strategic planning, One Heart was and is still able to meet those increases. Bowman says she wasn’t surprised by One Heart’s ability to adjust. She credits community partners as well as One Heart’s quick and creative responses for making all this possible.
“We always plan ahead,” Bowman says. “But who could have planned for what we went through with the pandemic? I think it shows how strategic and streamlined we are. Whatever we need, God always provides. I don’t want that to come off as cocky. It’s just been our experience that we get exactly what we need when we need it.”
One Heart has calculated that it will need to raise $100,000 to meet its commitments for 2022. The development team is happy to announce a few creative ways the community can support One Heart and its mission.
For example, American Express recently had a meeting in Orlando and partnered with One Heart to purchase supplies and provide volunteers to make care packages of food, hygiene, and other items. In one hour, the group made enough care packages for about 200-250 people, which were then delivered to shelters and individuals within 24 hours. “That’s the kind of direct impact One Heart can have with the support of our community,” Bowman says.
Shopping or donating to One Heart’s thrift store is another great way to help. The thrift store sells to the public, gives to those in need, and helps community members earn vouchers for non-food items by working in the thrift shop, which also helps them learn valuable work skills. Bowman reports that One Heart can transform each dollar it makes in sales at the thrift store into approximately 12 meals for the community through its partnerships with Second Harvest Food Bank and other organizations and businesses. Bowman encourages everyone to keep One Heart in mind the next time they go thrifting. Your donations as well as your purchases directly impact the community.
Other ways to help One Heart include sponsoring a mobile food drop, hiring One Heart volunteers to work for your organization and putting that payment into the nonprofit’s programs, and by promoting micro-fundraising online. These types of donations are usually made in lieu of gifts for your birthday or wedding anniversary on your social media profile. One Heart accepts donations via these methods: Website: OneHeartOrlando.org, Facebook: facebook.com/OneHeartMatters, Venmo: @Oneheart-2040, Paypal: HelpOneHeart@gmail.com