‘Don’t need to be a certain age:’ Central Florida teen, grandmother run food pantry

17-year-old Serenity Gary, co-founded nonprofit, has been volunteering most of her life

ORLANDO, Fla. – At 17 years old, Serenity Gary has already made a name for herself as a Central Florida philanthropist.

Gary started volunteering at age 5 and helped start a nonprofit with her grandmother a few years later.

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We visited Gary’s food pantry, Serenity’s Grace located near downtown Orlando, as volunteers helped feed the neighborhood.

The line outside 716 West Robinson St., in the Parramore district, was long, forming hours before Karlette “Koko” Karras was ready to slide open the garage door to let people in.

Karras handles the day-to-day operations at the 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

“The clients that come here, 95% live in this area,” said Karras, as she sorted fruit and vegetables for the afternoon distribution. “They walk, they ride their bikes, they pull their wagons.”

Every Tuesday, Karras, with the help of several volunteers, serves dozens of people.

“It’s going to be a slow rush,” Karras said. She described what she calls the “choice pantry,” where people are able to pick the foods they want with guided assistance of a volunteer. Stations are set up in the warehouse with different food groups.

“Every family has different needs. Different dietary needs,” Karras said. “So we give them variety and they make their way around and pick what they want. It’s healthier.”

Gary, a high school senior and student athlete, helps out a few days a week.

“I do a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff because I’m in school,” said Gary as she restocked the canned vegetable shelves. “But I try my best to do what needs to be done.”

She may be working behind the scenes but her name is front and center. Serenity’s Grace is painted with big letters on a delivery truck across the street.

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“I didn’t expect it to get like this,” said Gary, when asked what it felt like to be a part of helping so many people. “We just kind of skyrocketed.”

Serenity’s Grace has operated in several locations since 2011 but it all started years earlier when Karras and her granddaughter, Serenity, were turned away from several food pantries and homeless outreach centers in the area.

“When I was younger, churches and community service people told me I was too young to come out because of the environment,” Gary explained. “So I told my grandmother, ‘We can do this ourselves,’ and she said, ‘You’re right.’ So we called our friends and family and we just started making meals, toiletry bags, clothes and here we are.”

The pair received a grant through the Boys and Girls Club, which launched the nonprofit.

“I just hate seeing people that are struggling,” Gary said. “So I’m going to try my best to help.”

Karras said she decided to nominate her granddaughter for the News 6 Getting Results Award because while the food pantry‚ and its backstory, has gotten media attention in the past, she wanted Gary to be the focus.

“She’s a young adult with passion and I think the world should know,” Karras said. “She inspired all this.”

Gary said she was honored to be receiving the award.

“It definitely caught me off guard,” Gary said. “You never go wrong with helping people. You don’t need to be a certain age. I’ve felt that way since I was little.”

Gary will graduate high school this year and is looking forward to studying marine biology and zoology in college. She said she’ll also be taking classes in social services.

For more information on her nonprofit, click here.

To submit someone for the Getting Results Award, fill out the form below.

About the Author:

Paul is a Florida native who graduated from the University of Central Florida. As a multimedia journalist, Paul enjoys profiling the people and places that make Central Florida unique.