By Denny Patterson
When we last spoke with Poverello CEO Tom Pietrogallo in May 2020, he spoke about the nonprofit organization’s good work, how it has positively impacted millions of people, and how he planned to face COVID-19 head-on. Millions of small businesses and nonprofits across the country have been forced to shut down, but thanks to Pietrogallo’s strong leadership, Poverello continues to march forward. We caught up with Pietrogallo for an update.
Denny Patterson: Can you begin by telling us what Poverello is and when it was founded?
Tom Pietrogallo: Poverello is a nonprofit organization that has been around since 1987. We were founded by a Franciscan priest who was working as a chaplain at a local hospital during the middle of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He saw the need that people had regarding food when they were discharged from the hospital. A lot of people who had AIDS at that time looked like they were on death’s door, and food was a big issue that was near and dear to the priest’s heart. The story goes that he used to feed people out of the trunk of his car and volunteers would make soup and take the food to people’s homes who were discharged from the hospital. Of course, we have grown into something a lot different. Now, we serve 2,000-3,000 people in South Florida who have HIV, 1,000-1,500 people who have other chronic illnesses and not HIV, and we offer healthy foods of the client’s choice that equal about a week’s worth of healthy groceries for people who need it. Generally, people who come to us are under the federal poverty level, and we offer several different programs. We also offer services by doing things like running a thrift shop. We have a thrift shop in Pompano Beach and one in Wilton Manors, and we also have a livewell center where people can come to our gym and volunteers will provide haircuts, Reiki, acupuncture, massages, and chiropractic services.
DP: The last time we talked with you, we were in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, we are not out of the woods yet. How has Poverello been managing during these difficult times and navigating through the pandemic?
TP: This pandemic really showed the weakness of our funding mechanism. We rely on retail to fill in the gaps of what we do for people, and when retail tanked, that meant a lot of our income tanked. It really made us look at what we are doing with pricing our services and trying to make sure that funders are adequately paying. What we do is high quality, and it is a great product. We sometimes do not value it enough to price it the way we should. Instead, we have been pricing it whatever they will give us and then we have been filling the gaps with what we make from the thrift store. When money does not come into the thrift store, it messes up the relief effort right in the middle of the time when people need it the most. Thankfully, donations are way up for us this year. People who know what we do have really stepped up and donated. Also, the PPP program has been beneficial to us. It allowed us to have three months of salaries paid and hazard benefits. We tried to beef up the benefits and show our staff how much we appreciated them working so hard during this pandemic. They have worked so hard to get everything done. We have definitely improved our services. Before, people would always come to us. Now, 20-40 per day are getting deliveries from us. They can either come in and receive food, or we deliver.
DP: What safety protocols have been implemented?
TP: The staff have all agreed to get tested on a regular basis, which has been helpful because the people who have tested positive were able to stay home. None of our people showed symptoms or passed it on to others. So, our systems seemed to work. We clean regularly and do a professional spray every week to the whole facility, including the vehicles. We ask everyone to wear a mask, we provide masks to our customers who do not have them, and we ask people to observe social distancing.
DP: How beneficial has Poverello been to the South Florida community?
TP: You would have to ask our clients. I have been talking to a few people lately who have told me when they find out who I am and what I do, they will usually tell me a story about how whatever we did for them saved their life. They will use those dramatic terms, or they will say we made their horrible situation so much better.
DP: To you, what is the most rewarding part about working with Poverello?
TP: I think the most rewarding part is knowing that the system of care that we built to help people with food insecurity is really one of the best in the nation. I am very proud of the fact that we have 112 different items that are curated by our nutritionist and available for people. They can order in the comfort of their home and have it delivered to them. It is truly top notch service for a safety net program. I do not know any other safety net program that treats their customers like we do.
DP: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
TP: If you are going to donate furniture or gently used items that you do not have the capacity to move, we will come to your home and pick it up. We have people who will come out and help.