Second Harvest volunteer calls experience ‘life-changing’

Nonprofit needs volunteers to help fill shifts

ORLANDO, Fla. – The pandemic has affected so many over the last two years, but Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida has been there to help many get through tough times.

This week’s Getting Results Award winner was affected too.

But Gavin Sisk didn’t need a meal—he needed a purpose.

Every weekday morning, volunteers arrive at the Second Harvest Food Bank’s Mercy Kitchen. The group prepares for a three-hour shift assembling pre-packaged meals that will go out to senior citizens, schools and families.

The kitchen is filled with the sounds of conversation as volunteers introduce themselves and discuss the meal of the day. Cathleen Hart volunteers once a week. Today, she’s placing salad items in the small cardboard containers.

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“It looks great,” she said. “This is a good-looking meal.”

Gavin Sisk is working across from her. His responsibility? Adding a scoop of chicken salad.

“You have to make sure you eat before you come,” he laughed.

Sisk is a regular and he’s in the middle of what can only be described as a food prep assembly line.

“We need more volunteers,” he said, never breaking away from the rhythm everyone has created. Fill, slide, repeat.

He’s here three or four times a week, often putting in double shifts and pitching in when more volunteers are needed.

“It’s got to get done,” he said. “People have to eat. It’s not a negotiable thing.”

Sisk has been volunteering here for nearly two years. The personal trainer was laid off when COVID-19 protocols closed much of the economy.

“Their wellness program was shut down because of COVID,” Sisk said, referring to his position with a large Central Florida company. “That kind of took care of most of my clients.”

With time on his hands, Sisk said he missed the feeling of being productive. That’s when a friend introduced him to the idea of volunteering with Second Harvest.

“He just came to dinner one night and said, ‘You’d love this. You have to do this, you’ll enjoy it,’” Sisk recalled. “You’ll feel better about this whole situation. It’s a great way to take some positive action.”

Sisk couldn’t tell you the day he lost his job but he remembers exactly when he started volunteering.

“I know the exact date,” he said with confidence. “July 17, 2020.”

Sisk called it a life changing event.

“I feel better about myself. I feel better about my community. I feel more engaged. I pay more attention to local politics,” Sisk said.

In fact, Sisk has accumulated enough hours to put him near the top of the list for active volunteers. He’s become one of the nonprofit’s biggest cheerleaders.

“This has become my passion,” he said.

Greg Higgerson, Chief Development Officer for Second Harvest, said the nonprofit relies on volunteers. They need 50 to 70 every day at their two Orlando locations.

“People like Gavin are really the oxygen that makes our mission happen,” he said, adding that the need has grown in the last few years.

“The pandemic has really put our mission on steroids,” he said. “The amount of food that we put out into the community has gone from 150,000 meals a day to more than a quarter of a million meals a day.”

Back at the kitchen, Sisk said there are days when there’s a struggle to keep up with demand.

“During Christmas, we get a lot of volunteers because it’s the holiday season and they want to help out but now that season is over. The need is still here,” he said, shifting his attention to the viewers of his story. “If you’re out there and have the time to give, we need it. So please consider coming and helping.”

Sisk said he’s taken early retirement. Now he’s devoted to volunteering and encouraging others to do the same.

“It’s just an amazing feeling to come in, work with great people and work toward making a positive impact on our community. It’s just uplifting,” Sisk said.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida is asking for the community’s help to fill open volunteer shifts this week and next week to sort through donations and prepare meals.

These weekday shifts are open to anyone ages 16 and up, or 10 and up, if accompanied by an adult. With the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, the food bank has precautions in place to keep volunteers safe and masks are required.

Volunteers play a critical role in the food bank’s operation and help ensure that all Central Floridians facing food insecurity receive the assistance they need. All volunteers must register ahead of time. More information can be found online at www.FeedHopeNow.org.

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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.