TRAVELTEER: Where Travel Meets Volunteering

1 With Easter 2k16 officially in the books (and finally waking up out of my food coma from Sunday’s family festivities), I was eager to get back to volunteering. On Monday, I was going to be spending my time at Carrollwood Community Center , an organization invested in enriching the local area through exhibits, theater, and classes pertaining to the arts. Arriving bright and early, I was immediately greeted with a warm welcome and a few hugs from the regular senior volunteers. Providing the love and support I am normally only lucky enough to receive from my grandmother, they were huge fans of Travelteer (as well as my “adorable” hair curls). One of the lovely volunteers was even trying to set me up with her granddaughter in Atlanta. After getting to know the locals, I was swiftly put to work helping set up for an art show featuring students from the Shyama Art School. After taking down the art from previous shows, I then helped organize over 200 art pieces created by elementary aged mini-Picassos, whose work ranged from volcanoes and dinosaurs to candy. These are my kind of artists.

2 After my work at the Carrollwood Cultural Center, I headed to Big Cat Rescue; a non-profit determined to help the population of wild cats through rehabilitation and awareness. Although they can not take temporary volunteers to assist in the caring of the big cats (more like volunteering to be a snack with no previous experience), I was excited to learn that they offered to give me an interview and provide a free tour of the grounds. Once I arrived, I immediately immersed myself in the wild, seeing cats from cougars to bobcats and leopards to lions (OH MY!). Each animal had its own story and personal anecdotes shared by the tour guide. One thing of note is that the movie cliché of drug dealers having wild cats to intimidate their competition – it turns out that isn’t made up. I was shocked to learn a good amount of animals come from raids on drug dealers residences (among other more normal circumstances), where they lack proper care and nutrition. At the end of the tour, I was able to interview Susan, the Director of PR, who offered a glimpse at the amazing story of how Big Cat Rescue got to where it is today. I cannot wait to share that with everyone and encourage others to visit when Travelteers start coming to the Tampa Bay area!

3 After hanging with all those big felines, I decided to hang with a few other cool cats – my Uncle Alan and family (see what I did there?). Having Cuban heritage, he took us to a really awesome area of Tampa called Ybor City. Nicknamed the “Latin Quarters of Florida”, Ybor City was originally a thriving area for Cuban, Italian, and Spanish immigrants during the mid-20th century. Now the area offers a quaint, historic stroll through the lively culture whose influence still makes an impression to this day. We went to Columbia, a restaurant that has been around for 5 generations (and over 100 years). I tried a mix of cultural dishes, from Spanish bean soup to the quintessential Cuban sandwich with plantains – all of which were delicious! After dinner I strolled through the quarters at dusk, rummaging through old-fashioned cigar shops as the ambient overhanging streetlights lit my way to Central Ybor and Tampa Bay Brewing where I tried the house IPA!

4 The next morning I woke up eager to work with Feeding Tampa Bay , an organization that feeds over 700,000 individuals throughout 10 central Florida counties. As part of Feeding America (in the top 2% in fact), a nationwide network of over 200 food banks, Feeding Tampa Bay utilizes over 25,000 volunteers to make the biggest possible impact on the area and can always use more help. I worked with fellow volunteers from Humana, a large health insurance company, first going through produce and determining what vegetables were not good for consumption. We then went through dry food, canned goods, and other products that were donated from stores such as Publix and Sam’s Club; first organizing by type and then weighing and boxing accordingly! Figuring out a system in teams, we soon were able to get all of the products processed and sent to the employees to shelve, where we were told would be used by families within 72 hours from sorting them out. Truly amazing to hear that a current activity towards helping others will directly benefit someone in need by weeks end! YAY TO THE POWER OF VOLUNT …err… TRAVELTEER!
Finishing out the day, I took advantage of the gorgeous weather, as Florida seems to be unpredictable when it comes to rain showers. I headed to Clearwater Beach to experience a true gulf sunset. As someone who lives in Virginia Beach, in order to see the sun break the horizon you have to wake up early – a tradition I wasn’t accustomed to. With the perfect, white sand between my toes, I walked along the surf just taking it all in. I soon found myself by a local restaurant spot called Frenchy’s, where I tried a local beer from Cigar City and watched the sunset on not only the evening, but also my time in Tampa Bay. What a wonderful week it has been, and I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect way for it to come to close. Now on to New Orleans!