As executive director of HomeAid Tampa Bay, a nonprofit group that works to help the homeless rebuild their lives with "dignified shelters," Bobbie Shay Lee often engages the less fortunate.
One afternoon near Mirror Lake in St. Petersburg, she encountered a mother and father struggling to provide for their small son, but not neglecting him. Lee's 6-year-old daughter was tagging along, delivering a bag of nonperishable food for the family.
She asked if she could get her soccer ball out of the car and play with the boy. "Sure," Lee said.
"The mother started crying," Lee recalled. "She said, 'Nobody ever lets their children play with him.' Kids don't deserve that."
What they do deserve is greater clarity about their plight. How we go about helping the homeless begins with how we define them.
We have to go beyond the panhandlers we see on street corners and recognize that many of them are families and children who long to be self-sufficient. The majority aren't begging in the median, but actually hold some kind of job, don't have drug addictions and fall on hard times through circumstances beyond their control, Lee said.
And we have to help the next generation embrace these definitions. Tomorrow's adults have to be prepared to help find solutions to the growing complexities of the problem.
They won't take on the challenge if we keep telling them the homeless are people who simply refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
A new program in Pinellas County seeks to paint a new perspective, using art as a tool to inspire and inform.
"Home, Where the Art Is" kicks off Sept. 11 at the Vitale Art Studio, 651 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. Kids ages 5-15 will be invited to a session (10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 3 p.m.) and asked to create works of art reflecting their understanding and compassion for the homeless.
A seat at the "art" table costs $40, but Lee said sponsors are covering the costs for some kids. Each participant will receive a T-shirt, supplies and a copy of their artwork.
The originals go on display at a VIP Gallery Premier on Sept. 24 and the Family Gallery Premier on Sept. 25, with plans to create a traveling exhibit. Ticket and sponsorship details are available at www.homeaidtampabay.org.
What makes this youth initiative unique is that it actually involves youths. Halee Moore and Skyler Broome, Shorecrest Prep freshmen, founded a group called the Give Back Girls and now have a small group of girls helping.
Halee, the daughter of former Bucs tight end Dave Moore, found her philanthropic spirit visiting patients at All Children's Hospital. She and her mother later began making blankets for the kids. Now, Halee and Skyler are aiming to spread that sense of charity to other kids.
"It's a special feeling when you're able to help other people," Halee said. "I really want to help kids and give them a place to call home. I really want to bring awareness to HomeAid, especially among people my age who can give of their time."
More than anything, "Home, Where the Art Is" will help kids not take their fortunes for granted. As Lee says, we often return from a road trip eager to sleep in our own bed, but the homeless never have their own bed.
Sometimes, they don't even have a bed.
That's all I'm saying.