MIAMI – The vision was always there. But what Valencia Gunder didn’t have was space -- that was, until a few days ago.
Gunder, a Liberty City native, is the founder of a nonprofit organization in Miami called Make the Homeless Smile. After Hurricane Irma, she rallied more than 300 volunteers and opened up a community emergency operations center. Gunder also started doing “pop-up” feedings in Liberty City, Little Haiti, Allapattah and Opa-Locka. Gunder has a passion for helping others.
“We were able to service 23,000 folks last year, with two days of preparation,” she said. “We want to be able to reach triple that amount of folks (and) help as many people as possible.”
Now, Gunder will be able to. She and her nonprofit group will be able to help people for years to come.
"I was like, thank you, God,” Gunder said.
Here’s how it all went down: At one point, Gunder’s charitable efforts caught the attention of the Miami Foundation, which awarded her a $10,000 grant to do it again -- not just after one storm, but potentially, after all of them, this hurricane season.
“We were getting funding (and) donations to buy (our) stuff, but I had nowhere to put it,” Gunder said.
Enter Pandwe Gibson, who runs EcoTech Visions, in Miami. The company had the thousands of square feet of warehouse space that Valencia was looking for. So Gibson offered to help.
She has her own personal experience with the devastating reality of a storm’s aftermath.
“I’m from New Orleans,” Gibson said. “My family went through Hurricane Katrina. We lost my grandmother. … And it was important to me to make sure that I could sleep at night and that EcoTech could remain a resource for the community."
EcoTech served as a hub for post-Hurricane Irma operations. This year, there was already a tenant in place. But it didn’t turn out to be a big deal.
"I'm just so happy that they are welcoming us again,” Gunder said. “And I hope that this can be a long-term relationship. … We deal with the communities. We know for a fact (we) are going to be hurting after the storm, and that's why this location was so perfect.”
Next up comes the fun part: the shopping. The group needs freezers, generators, ice machines and other supplies to help over and over again this hurricane season.
“As the neighborhood teams come in, they'll be able to take what they need, sign it out, and (get) out of the door,” Gunder said. “Hurricane season is going to continue to happen, and we want to make sure our community stays prepared for it.”