Community Volunteering

Each Friday evening, a group of USF students help feed the homeless in downtown Tampa.


On a recent Friday night, USF students pass out sandwiches and water to some of Tampa’s homeless. Photo: Brandi Hollis | USF News

By Brandi Hollis

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 14, 2012) – On a recent Friday at dusk, a group of 50 or so University of South Florida students gathered at a stark parking lot off North Franklin Street in Tampa’s downtown.


Graffiti covers the walls of adjoining buildings, many of them vacant. Few cars come down the one-way street. The students aren’t there for a party. They are there to feed the homeless.


It doesn’t matter if it’s raining. Or cold. Or if final exams loom large. Or if school is in session. For the past seven years, the students have begun each Friday evening with a ritual huddle. This time, Hajjah Kamara, president of Project Downtown and a USF senior majoring in international studies, directs the group and splits them into teams to unload food and water.


 “It’s not really about the sandwich that we pass out,” Kamara tells her fellow students. “That sandwich is a gateway to engage in conversation and to talk to somebody.”


Kamara has been with Project Downtown since she was in 11th grade. Her Fridays begin at 2 p.m. when she joins a small group of volunteers at Salem’s Gyros and Subs to make the turkey and cheese sandwiches that will be handed out to Tampa’s homeless that evening. Salem’s donates the food and prep space to the students three Fridays a month from its locations nearby campus, while Qassam Mosque provides donations the fourth and fifth Friday.


As the last rays of daylight disappear, she heads into Tampa to meet her fellow students. One group visits the Salvation Army, another group goes to the Good Samaritan Inn, and two groups of men walk the streets around the Salvation Army or drive to Bayshore Bridge to feed those who truly have no place to go.


At the Salvation Army, a table is set up outside the building for the water and sandwiches. The volunteers stand at the ready, smiling and handing a sandwich and water bottle to each person that comes out to greet them. The Salvation Army provides a room and a shower for $10 per night. For many, there is no money left to buy food. Kamara and Project Downtown try to bridge that gap for people by ensuring they don’t go hungry.


Kamara has a wide grin and ready hug for every person she hands a sandwich to. Some people know her from countless past Fridays and rush to her first, getting a hug and some conversation before getting a sandwich. Kamara said she is touched by the conversations she has with people she meets, and honored to be a part of their lives. The conversations, no matter how brief, are moments when she listens to someone who might not have anyone else to listen.


“That made me realize why I go downtown every Friday,” said Kamara.


While Kamara is at the Salvation Army, another group is walking the surrounding streets to feed those who don’t stay at the shelter. Tim, who asked his last name not be used, has been homeless off and on for more than a decade in Tampa. He said when he’s not working he can’t afford the money each night to stay at the Salvation Army. He greeted the students and said he was grateful that Project Downtown volunteers come out each Friday.


The support is much needed. According to a report by the National Alliance to End Homelessness released earlier this year, Tampa has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation.


But Project Downtown is not the only organization USF students are involved with to help others and better the Tampa community. USF students in the 2010-2011 school year logged more than 140,000 volunteer hours, giving their time and energy to help others. Student organizations, clubs, and daily fundraisers on campus support a multitude of causes and have many students willing to help.


Through USF’s Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (CLCE), students can find many organizations with various causes to volunteer for, either in their local community or farther away. Many USF students use this resource to get involved and for some students it is a way to start volunteering for the first time.


Stampede of Service is CLCE’s largest event and this past January had about 3,000 USF students volunteer their Saturday to work on various projects in and around Tampa. Stampede of Service (SOS) was started in 2006 by a USF student who wanted to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and with the support of students it has turned into a USF tradition to kick off the spring semester through service.


Bulls Service Breaks is another CLCE program where students spend a week or weekend volunteering in another city, whether in Florida, nationally or in another country. The program is so popular there is waiting list. Kelly Wright, public relations chair of Bulls Service Breaks and a senior majoring in health sciences, said the trips give her a “broader awareness of local issues.”


Wright recently traveled with a group of students to Jacksonville to assist the Urban Mission Presbyterian Church for November’s Hunger and Homelessness awareness month. Wright said when they arrived they didn’t even unload their luggage before they started sorting clothes and folding gently worn clothing for the church. The group also worked with HabiJax, Jacksonville’s Habitat for Humanity, and before they left Sunday morning, volunteered at a soup kitchen, serving breakfast to more than 200 people.


Bulls Service Breaks, Stampede of Service, and student led organizations all thrive because of the support of USF students and the time they dedicate volunteering. Students like Wright and Kamara find a cause they are passionate about and work, not to change the world, but the world around them.


Shaneese Hernandez, a USF business administration major who works with Bulls Service Breaks, said wherever students volunteer “makes you more aware of how issues are in your backyard.”


Back at the Salvation Army in downtown Tampa, the volunteers pack up the unused water and return to the vacant parking lot to have their ending huddle. The sandwiches are all gone, which pleases Kamara.


Students smile as they gather back together and share the experience of the evening.


Greg McNealy, a senior in biomedical science who often comes to volunteer, said, “I enjoy serving the community. I’m from here so I relish the chance to give back.”


For more information on volunteering, visit the CLCE website at Sign up Stampede of Service for January 2013 at