Feeding Body, Mind and Soul

TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 24, 2009) On a warm November afternoon, if you want a seat in Miss Billi’s office in Belmont Heights Estates, you’ll have to move the bags of groceries and a frozen turkey first.  Boxes of donuts and cakes are perched precariously on a stack of papers, while her telephone is ringing with calls from people in need of food before the holiday arrives.

But come in, sit down. Miss Billi has time for you, even though it’s afternoon and she hasn’t had lunch and at 72-years-old her children continually beg her to take a day off from her 60 to 70 hour work weeks.

University of South Florida doctoral student Brett Mervis has just left to deliver holiday provisions to some of the neighborhood’s older residents who can’t make their way to the small food pantry set up in the center of what had once been Tampa’s meanest neighborhood.

With a natty visor on his head and an easy going manner, Mervis is a favorite among the ladies who are well into their 90s and don’t get much out anymore. “Where is that nice young man?” they call for him – or so says a teasing co-worker at the pantry – and the ladies beam as he puts the frozen turkey in the refrigerator and stacks the cans neatly on their counters for them.  He may look the part of a grocery store delivery boy of a bygone era, but Mervis is actually an anthropologist who has found in Belmont Heights a community rich in scholarly material to mine.

The food is flying out the door faster than anyone can imagine, but today is the culmination of weeks of raising money to buy groceries to make sure nearly 60 households on the list – the vast majority of them the frail elderly – have food to get them through the week.  The pantry was founded by Billi Griffin, the head of the Belmont Heights Estates Residents Association, and is supported by USF students and faculty as volunteers, who assist in raising money and working at events to support the association’s efforts.

The project stems from USF Anthropology Professor Susan Greenbaum long involvement in the east Tampa neighborhood. Now the newly appointed director of the Office of Community Engagement Greenbaum has long directed students to not rely on text books to learn about the challenges of urban poverty, but to immerse themselves in neighborhoods to understand the social nuances of poverty in America. In addition to Mervis, graduate students Theresa Crocker and Margeaux Chavez are regular fixtures in Belmont Heights as part of USF’s service learning project.

But if you think what happens here at Belmont Heights is a story about USF serving the community – you’re only partly right.

The real story is what USF students learn from Miss Billi.

Billi Griffin was 15 when she had her first child. She begged an administrator at her Washington D.C. school to let her stay, but back in the 1950s pregnant girls weren’t allowed back in school. Undeterred in her ambition to get an education, the teenager wheeled her baby to the nearest public library each day and spent hours reading through the encyclopedia and combing through the stacks of books.

Four more babies would come, her husband would leave.  Juggling two or three jobs, she raised her children in the projects of the nation’s capital with the help of her mother, a blind woman who had been a midwife and for all practical matters the only doctor their segregated community ever knew.

There were some nights, Miss Billi now remembers, when she told her children she wasn’t hungry at dinner because she knew there wasn’t enough food to go around. And there were times when she’d open her refrigerator and there was nothing at all. To this day, she marvels that at that most desperate of moments, a neighbor would show up at her door with some food for her children.

“I know what it means to not have,” she said, tears welling in her eyes at the memories and the helpless, sinking feeling that remains more than 50 years later. “I know it from the depths of my soul.”

But Miss Billi had two weapons to fight back: What she learned in those library stacks allowed her to complete her education and go on to a professional career and the compassion for others she learned from her mother.

All five of Miss Billi’s children went to college and graduated. One daughter earned a PhD at Harvard and is now a history professor at UCLA. Miss Billi went on to a career as a paralegal, and moved to Belmont Heights after she retired.

Once settled in, she looked around at the elderly residents and noticed something was wrong. They didn’t have any food. Their meager Social Security checks were eaten up by utility bills and doctor and prescription co-pays, leaving just a few dollars a week for food. Those with high-blood pressure and diabetes were eating cheap, highly-processed food full of sodium and lacking nutrition.

She knew she had to do something.

“I am just offended when you see a 96-year-old lady with $10 worth of food stamps and she’s trying to count pennies,” she said. “These were the maids and the cooks and the housekeepers who for many years the people they worked with paid no Social Security.

“I know people will say, ‘Why doesn’t their family do for them or take care of them?’ But we are everybody’s family. I believe strongly that we are our brother’s keeper.”

As an anthropologist, Greenbaum has studied Belmont Heights for more than a decade. As the new director of USF’s Office of Community Engagement, she points to the service learning project with the Belmont Heights Estates Residents Association as an example of what service learning can accomplish.

“I want my students to understand how poverty affects people, to be close enough to see the human face of it,” Greenbaum said. “I also want them to know about the hard work people like Billi do to help their communities.

“Belmont Heights Estates looks really good, and it is tempting to think that all the problems have been solved, but there are still many very low income residents here who have banded together to help each other and their neighbors.  We have a lot to learn from them and we are glad to pitch in and help.”

The USF students work with the residents’ association in anything they need: keeping the office organized, helping with fundraisers and even delivering groceries.

“I learn more from being in the neighborhood than being in the classroom,” Mervis said.

Longtime Tampa residents remember this place as College Hill and the Ponce de Leon projects. Until 2000 when the old apartment homes were razed and the new mixed-income housing was built, the intersection of 22nd Street and Lake Avenue was considered the most deadly street corner in Tampa.

Undoubtedly, the landscape has changed. Craftsman-inspired townhouses boast well-manicured yards blooming with bright flowers. The sight of a Tampa Police car makes catches your eye as something unusual.

But is life for residents better? Not entirely.

In a paper published in the June 2008 Journal of Poverty, Greenbaum and a contingent of USF researchers wrote of finding that when residents were relocated out of former public housing complexes in Tampa many lost the social networks and interaction with their neighborhoods that helped shore up their lives. Mervis said the same is true for those who have moved to the newly constructed Belmont Heights Estates neighborhoods: the social underpinnings of life have shifted, and the elderly residents (who tend to have the lowest incomes) there now have lost the informal safety net that once existed.

That makes resident activists like Miss Billi even more essential in advocating for residents, and cooperative efforts like USF’s service learning project not just an interesting program, but a lifeline of sorts.

That was particularly evident on the week before Thanksgiving when the pantry was well-stocked with food purchased from Second Harvest and local produce wholesalers, in part paid for through the proceeds from fundraisers organized by Ms. Billi, the residents association and the USF students. A communal yard sale in October and Caribbean Festival in early November raised a modest amount, but brought the neighborhood together for music and a barbeque in hopes of reestablishing ties among residents.

The money helped buy turkeys and roasting hens, bundles of celery and cans of organic tomatoes, soup and bread. One day a month, Miss Billi gets up at 3 a.m. to go to the produce market on Hillsborough Avenue to get fresh fruits and vegetables and she diligently shops the specials at local grocery stores trying to make the dollars stretch as far as possible.

“Miss Billi is the reason for this,” Mervis said. “You take her out of the equation, and I don’t know what happens.”

Miss Billi wants the USF students to learn one lesson if they learn anything at all: “There are segments of our society that, through no fault of their own, need assistance.”

“There is still a perception in people’s minds that these are the projects,” she adds. “It isn’t. It’s a community.”

She had learned to care about others “at her mother’s knee” – watching her grind poultices from herbs in her garden to treat sickness and bring new babies into the world, even though she couldn’t see. Griffin said she carried those lessons through her tough days as a young, single mother and it sustained her through the work needed to earn a GED at 41 years old and then enrolling in Howard University.

Some of the residents who come to her for help have never known how to read or write. They bring her letters from the Social Security Administration or the housing authority and Miss Billi reads for them – and then keeps their secret so as to not embarrass them among the neighbors.

They know they can come to her no matter what they need, and instead of sympathy they get admiration for their perseverance.

One by one they come to the food pantry and 57 bags of groceries go out the door. Rounds of “Thank you, baby!” and “Have a blessed holiday!” are shouted down the narrow hallway. With the bags nearly gone, John Johnson, is trying to get his mother to sit down and have some lunch before she starts to feel faint.

She won’t sit. Standing up, she gulps down two bites of spaghetti and heads out the door with Mervis, his arms loaded down with turkeys and bags, for another round of deliveries.

“There are something you can’t learn from a book,” she says, her student in tow. “They have to come from your heart.”