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Neighbor to neighbor: groups organize to help fellow residents

LITHIA

Some days, Charles Martini wouldn't eat. With four children under the age of 4, feeding everyone could be a challenge. As their father, his meals often came last.

Living in a FishHawk apartment with his wife, Tara, the family was struggling to pay bills.

"We hit a couple of rough spikes," Tara Martini said.

That's when Kelly Rowjohn stepped in. Rowjohn, 46, is the founder of Friends of FishHawk, a nonprofit organization aimed at helping those in need within her community.

"We didn't even ask for food, she knew we were struggling and brought some over for us," Tara Martini said. "God sent us an angel."

Rowjohn formed the organization last year after a neighbor's house burned down weeks before Christmas. Since then, her group has helped the Martini family and dozens of others in FishHawk with everything from utility bills to resume writing.

Someday, Rowjohn hopes to spread the organization throughout Tampa Bay with "Friends of" groups forming in every community.

And Rowjohn isn't the only helpful neighbor in Hillsborough County to turn a good deed into a mission.

Tara Martini, 22, who now lives with her family in Port Richey, is considering starting a group there.

A similar group already exists in Westchase. The Westchase Charitable Foundation formed nine years ago after several people in the neighborhood held a golf tournament to raise money for the purchase of a home hospital bed for a young girl.

It kept growing from there.

• • •

"The next year somebody said, 'we have another person who needs help,' so we had another golf tournament," said Sean O'Donnell, the organization's president. "After we started to reach out, we heard of more people who needed help."

The group concentrates on helping families with children, O'Donnell, 52, said. They've donated more than $200,000 over the years to families in need, he said. And though they began by helping their neighbors in Westchase, the group has since increased its reach.

"We are not just local to Westchase," O'Donnell said. "If a story is compelling enough and we can verify that a child is affected, then we will step up and take care of it."

The group recently raised $10,000 for a family of a mother suffering from cancer, O'Donnell said. They have also helped families cover bills and provided hotel rooms for a those who have lost a home.

Fundraising is often done through galas and events within the community, including an annual woman of the year race, O'Donnell said.

• • •

The Brandon Foundation takes a similar approach with its Angel Program, which helps families in the Greater Brandon area who have suffered a catastrophic event, such as a life-threatening disease, or had their home damaged by flood or fire.

It seeks practical solutions such as soliciting a lawn-care company to maintain the lawn of a patient receiving chemotherapy.

In FishHawk, Rowjohn uses social media and word of mouth to seek donations.

After the house fire that spurred the formation of the group, Rowjohn reached out to neighbors through FishHawk's community website.

"Within five days, we had a rental house fully furnished and more clothes than could fit in their closets," Rowjohn said.

Eventually, she created a Friends of FishHawk Facebook page, which now has more than 800 members.

"It's insane the way this community comes together," Rowjohn said.

In November, Rowjohn posted an announcement that she had created an angel tree to collect Christmas gifts for needy children in the community. In less than a week, Rowjohn had dozens of people pledging their support.

Rowjohn is in the process of creating a board of directors for her nonprofit and has many ideas for both her community and others in the works.

• • •

On her seemingly endless list: Find a kidney for an ill neighbor. Set up tutoring for local kids. Assemble Easter baskets for needy families.

There's always someone to help, Rowjohn said, even in neighborhoods, such as FishHawk and Westchase, where people might assume residents are well off.

"From the outside, I really would wonder why anybody in Westchase would need help" O'Donnell said. "But these people are not wealthy, generally speaking, and we've all hit a rough spot before."

And there always seems to be someone willing to help.

"So many people want to help, they just don't know what to do," Rowjohn said. "I think it's just being given the opportunity that works."

Even a once a year event can make a difference. In Davis Islands, residents recently held their 12th annual Christmas toy drive. Volunteers collected more than 1,500 toys this year, to be distributed to several area nonprofits.

The event began with a couple of locals and others have pitched in over the years to keep it alive.

"It just shows that in your own neighborhood," said one of the event's coordinators, Staci Brown, "you can gather together and make a difference."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Neighbor to neighbor: groups organize to help fellow residents 12/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 27, 2012 3:30am]
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