Daystar: Help is out there!

By Holly Kestenis, Staff Writer

St. Petersburg –It’s after the five o’clock on Monday. Closing time at Daystar, an emergency basic needs program located at 226 6th St. S. Jane Walker is just finishing up vacuuming the floor. She’s the executive director but fills in wherever she’s needed.

“It’s summer,” she said, a time when volunteerism tends to wane at the center, even though the smooth running of the organization depends heavily on its volunteers. With only four full-time employees, it has to. “We depend on volunteers,” Walker continued. “We use them for everything.”

Walker knows when there’s work to be done and for the last 15 years she has dedicated her time to running Daystar and making a difference in the community by helping to give to those in need. Although Daystar serves all of Pinellas County, most of the folks that come through the door come from south St. Pete.

“We have the bigger pockets of poverty, actually they are suitcases,” said Walker. In essence, the larger groups in need are alarming. The number of people falling victim to increased rent, low wages and medical bills has skyrocketed, not leaving much room for essentials such as food, toiletries and other basics of living.

But as Walker points out in the northern parts of the county, even though the numbers in need are smaller, they are more spread out, which can cause its own problems. “People don’t see it,” she said. And in those cases, people don’t get help.

Walker sees roughly 1,400 people a month walk through Daystar’s door. They have found themselves in predicaments; some of them due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness in the family, flat tires or losing a job, while others have fallen on hard times because of making some wrong decisions.

“It’s the hardest thing to make people feel like this isn’t their fault,” said Walker. While some may be experiencing hardships and find a way to work through them, others may not be able to dig themselves out of the hole. “Don’t apologize because you don’t have the same support system that somebody else might have,” continued Walker.

In every circumstance their ability to pay their bills on time and to put food on the table are negatively affected. If you live paycheck to paycheck you know what it’s like. Wondering what unforeseen circumstances will put you so far behind that you may be in jeopardy of losing your home, or the electricity that allows your child to complete their homework so one day they will have a better life. Yes, Walker sees this every day.

“The resiliency of people, it still just boggles my mind,” she said. No matter what kind of day Walker has had she knows she’s going home to a safe place, can buy food when she needs to. “It makes me thankful.”

But that’s a luxury far too many residents don’t have. Many are homeless, hopping from place to place, in dire poverty. Others are trying to survive on a measly few hundred dollars a month social security check that barely pays the rent, let alone anything the elderly need to take care of themselves and stay healthy.

“It’s the type of thing that puts life back into perspective,” said Walker who sees the true meaning of faith when someone down and out on their luck can find happiness in the little bit of help they receive that will allow them to survive another month. Instead of complaining about why God deserted them when their car broke down, those who receive help show what they’re made of. “They say thank you Jesus when they’re still not even close to having all their problems solved.”

But perhaps it is what she finds when she leaves for the day that is most alarming. Wherever Walker goes, she finds people in need of help. When a local grocer had chicken on sale for a dollar a pound, Walker was there picking up as much as she could to help feed the families that she sees day in and day out.

“It’s sinful what you have to pay for a piece of chicken,” she said. But when she told the employee what she needed it for, Walker found out that the girl and her mother needed help themselves. She gave the girl her card. “Things are just disproportionate,” said Walker.

And just this week she was at a local store getting help with her phone. One of the workers there had just lost their home to a fire and was living with his family in a motel because he didn’t have enough money to get another place. She didn’t hesitate to give him her card.

Daystar receives some city dollars to keep them up and running, but rely mostly on donations from benefactors who want to help alleviate some of the struggles that people are living through every day. They provide assistance with rent and utility bills, transportation and even tax services. In fact Daystar, for its second year, offers year round help for those needing to make tax amendments or who have other tax concerns.

Mail is also a huge deal at Daystar. There are many in St. Petersburg who are not labeled officially homeless, but who aren’t at any one address for long periods of time. About 1,700 homeless or displaced persons currently get their mail delivered to Daystar where they pick it up at their convenience.

“People depend on that,” Walker said. What started out as a handful of mail in a drawer has now turned into a mini post office. “I’m guessing we’re doing a good job at it.”

Daystar is always looking for new ways to help out the community. So one Wednesday out of the month, the Florida License on Wheels (FLOW) parks at the Daystar facility fully equipped to help anyone in need of a Florida I.D., license renewal and registration. The only thing they don’t do is driver’s tests. It’s a one stop shop. Those with ACCESS cards or who receive SNAP benefits can get a picture I.D. for free.

Although there’s no agency that can solve all your problems, Daystar and the men and women behind its success are on a mission to steer as many people as they possibly can in the direction of help. “Don’t deprive yourself or your family when there’s resources out there,” said Walker.

Daystar is currently looking for volunteers, teens included, to help out at the center. For more information on how you or a loved one in need can get assistance, or if you are interested in volunteering, contact Daystar at (727) 825-0442 or visit their website at daystarlife.com.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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