PALM HARBOR — For the last four years a small group of Tampa Bay women — wives and mothers with active lives— has found time to spread compassion to the far reaches of three counties, hoping to create a better life for the less fortunate.
"We've been blessed in our own lives," said Kathi Givens of Palm Harbor, one of the four women who founded 4Hearts, a nonprofit offering support to the community. "We wanted to pay it forward and help others."
Givens met Palm Harbor resident Rose Chervitz, along with the two other founding members, Karen Levine of Palm Harbor and Carol Wood of Lutz, at the Make a Wish Foundation in Tampa, where all were volunteers. But Givens, Levine and Chervitz also wanted to make a difference in Pinellas County, where they lived, and toyed with ways to do that.
"We knew we all worked well together, but it was hard to choose only one need to focus on," said Chervitz. "We wanted to create an organization that covered more people."
So in 2008, they created 4Hearts. The homeless and hungry, the elderly in need of a little extra attention or a hot meal, returning military veterans, military families and pregnant single women with few prospects for a productive future have all benefitted from the group's donations.
This year three more women came on board at 4Hearts: Jamie Murphy of St. Petersburg, Vicki Hafner of Oldsmar and Aggie Howes of Palm Harbor. Others are invited to do so as well.
"It just takes passion and a willingness to give of their time," said Givens.
Two fundraising events per year provide the bulk of the funds: the annual Hearts of Gold Holiday Fair, this year to be held Nov. 29, and the Hearts of Gold Golf Classic scheduled for May 4, 2013. Both events will be held at the Cypress Run Golf Club in Tarpon Springs.
The fifth annual Holiday Fair will feature 22 vendors selling items ranging from jewelry, clothing and handbags to travel accessories and gourmet candies and baked goods. Admission to the pre-holiday shopping mecca, open to the public, is $10 a person at the door.
The women also work diligently between those two large events. 4Hearts has what the women call an "Email Life Tree." When they hear of a need for clothing or other items, they use the email tree to seek donations, which they distribute to appropriate agencies.
They participated in a blanket-tying afternoon with residents of the Allegro senior living facility in Palm Harbor. The residents added decorative ties along the border of each blanket. Blankets were then donated to Eckerd Raising Hope, an agency preparing children for foster care.
Each year 4Hearts selects different agencies and organizations to help. Word of need comes to them from different corners. Sometimes community members call them directly.
"If one of us learns of a new family with an immediate need, we go into action immediately and try to start a drive," said Chervitz.
They also do their own research.
"We want to make sure a charity is well-established and reputable," said Givens, "and then we come together as a group to choose which ones to support that year."
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Over the past year they contributed money to help the Support Our Troops organization ship supplies to Afghanistan and Iraq, which Chervitz said costs about $40,000 per month. They also contributed to a fund for one particular soldier, Michael Nicholson of Tampa. The 22-year-old Marine lost both legs and part of one arm while serving in Afghanistan.
This year six recipients have been chosen for the group's largesse: the Homeless Emergency Project (HEP) in Clearwater; the West Pasco Pregnancy Center; the Pregnancy Center of Pinellas; F.E.A.S.T., a nonprofit food pantry in Palm Harbor; Living in Faith, a Tampa church community that runs a food warehouse with monthly distributions to those in need, and Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor, where donations for Chanukah meals will be distributed by the rabbi to needy or homebound elderly Jewish residents.
Chervitz, who grew up in a military family, said she is particularly attached to HEP, which has some programs and facilities dedicated to returning veterans. HEP also is unique among local social service agencies in that it offers a full range of shelter care for the entire homeless population — men, women and families.
"They have transitional housing for local needy people," Chervitz said, "and they just opened 32 affordable homes for returning military troops."
Jackie Dryden, an administrator for HEP, praised 4Hearts' contributions.
"4Hearts has been very generous in making the holidays for our families a little brighter," she said. "For the last two years they have provided holiday meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas for the families that stay at our shelter."
Dryden said she also considers these women "wonderful ambassadors" for HEP, spreading the word about the agency throughout the community and attending many of the HEP events.
Chervitz speaks of "spreading the love" and wants to encourage others do so as well.
"People really do want to help others," she said. "We thought if we gave more people a chance to give of their own time and talents, they would participate."
"It is magical to share with others," she said. "It makes you feel so good."