MIAMI – Valencia Gunder was quite candid when asked about her neighborhood’s "social ills."
"It's high poverty," she said. "We deal with a lot of violence, crime, and a lack of employment."
Gunder also mentioned the number of public housing projects that make up her crowded neighborhood. But, for her, this is home.
"I love everything about Liberty City," she said, smiling. "The culture, the smell, the art, the history. The people, here, are extremely resilient, and they have a lot of hope."
We met Gunder at Alonzo Kelly Park, just off Northwest 67th Street, in the neighborhood she loves. She said she was born and raised in Liberty City and still lives here.
"I decided to come back to help out the people," she said.
She now runs Make the Homeless Smile, Miami, the nonprofit she founded in 2014, which seeks to heal and empower disenfranchised communities, according to the organization’s website. Helping feed more than tens of thousands of people in just a few short years is only one way the organization has served its community.
"And then the hurricane came, and we were, like, 'We have to feed more people,'" Gunder said.
While Hurricane Irma inched closer and closer to South Florida, Gunder began to question what had been done to help the people in the neighborhood she loves so well.
"Historically, our communities are usually the last to be responded to," she said. "I knew that our communities were not going to be able to survive if someone did not step in."
Gunder and a team of volunteers went to work, securing donations of food and water. Two days before Hurricane Irma made landfall, she established a Community Emergency Operations Center.
As soon as the storm passed, she and her volunteers created pop-up mobile feeding operations, which popped up in parks and community spaces across South Florida.
"It went from us servicing Liberty City, Little Haiti, Little Havana, Allapattah, Opa-locka, to more communities reaching out to us," she said. Gunder said her pop-up feeding events helped more than 22,000 people in the days after the storm.
"They knew their neighborhoods, and they knew how to knock on doors," said Charisse Grant, with The Miami Foundation. Grant is the foundation’s senior vice president for programs and grants administration.
"Communities like (Liberty City) face a challenge that is particularly unique," Grant said. "A storm, like Irma, not only has an immediate effect on your property and your life, it can be the thing that financially sends you downhill."
The Miami Foundation awarded Gunder’s nonprofit with a $10,000 grant.
"Not only did they do that, but they have been working with us, since then, to make sure that this thing stays afloat," Gunder said.
"There are things that government can do really well, and there are elements that people in the community can do even better," Grant said. "If there's a place that I can go, and not have to worry about going to the grocery store, but I know somebody's coming into my neighborhood, they're setting up a barbecue, we can connect, I can charge my phone -- those things are huge."
Gunder said the next step is to use her grant money to purchase grills, generators, ice machines, coolers, tables and tents to stockpile the supplies. She wants to be ready should another big storm hit.
But, she has a problem -- finding a place to store her supplies throughout hurricane season -- so she contacted the Leave it to Layron team.
"We're looking for an in-kind donation for a storage space because we want every single penny from the grant to go right into the community with resources," she said. "We just want to make sure that our communities can get what they need to be resilient."
If you’d like to help Gunder, contact her directly: 786-877-7826, or email the Leave it to Layron team at Layron@Local10.com.