For most college students, Friday nights are a time to wind down and enjoy their youth. But for one group at the University of South Florida, it’s a time to give back to their community.
Project Downtown Tampa is a student organization that prepares and distributes food to the homeless once a week.
Every Friday afternoon at 4:30, the organization gathers in the USF Marshall Student Center food court. While their classmates snack on Papa Johns and Chick-Fil-A, the group works in a back corner, preparing food to distribute to the homeless.
Logan Suites, a student who regularly volunteers with Project Downtown Tampa, is one of 15 people assembling turkey sandwiches from ingredients donated by a local restaurant.
“We’re working in kind of in an assembly line style, where each person does one job,” says Suites. “So I will just put the meat on the sandwich while other people will do their specific jobs.”
Since the university's funds can only be utilized for on-campus events, the organization operates primarily on donations. The ingredients for their sandwiches are donated by Salem's Fresh Eats, and their pastries are given by Panera Bread.
The organization holds an annual banquet to raise money, which goes towards other items the people they serve may need, including hygiene kits and bus passes. This year, they raised nearly $20,000.
Though some simply see the group as a food delivery service, the group’s president, Yasmeen Alkishawi, says it’s about more than just food:
“We hold ourselves to the idea that we don’t just go downtown to feed the stomach, but to feed the soul,” Alkishawi says. “So we’re not just dropping off food and leaving - we stay, we talk.”
Alkishawi began volunteering with the organization as a high school student looking to log some volunteer hours. Now, five years later, she still comes almost every Friday.
“It’s something that I promised myself that I’d make time for no matter what,” she says. “It’s a commitment that you make, so as long as they’re there, I’m going to be there.”
Project Downtown Tampa is based on a group created in 2006 by a couple of college students in Miami. This national organization now has more than 20 chapters across America, including ten in Florida. Together, they’ve distributed over 1.2 million meals and counting. While its founders built it on the Islamic principles of generosity, compassion, and charity, students of all faiths are welcome to volunteer.
The volunteers are usually a mix of current and former students who are committed to giving back to their community. Alkishawi’s fiancé, Abdul Dasankop, recently graduated from USF and works full-time – but he still shows up every Friday to chop the lettuce.
“You kind of just want to give your good in this world, like I feel it’s your duty to do that,” says Dasankop. “To take a couple hours out of my whole entire week, that’s like nothing to me. I feel like I should be doing more.”
One hour and 200 subs later, the volunteers load the food into their cars and head downtown. Those who couldn’t help out earlier meet the group in an empty parking lot, ready to contribute.
There are four distribution sites the organization hits every Friday: Good Samaritan Inn, the Salvation Army, Borrell Park, and Lykes Gaslight Square Park. The group divides the food and splits up to serve each site before meeting back up at the end of the night.
Before they leave for those sites, Volunteer Coordinator Samaa El-Kolalli goes over the game plan and some last-minute safety reminders.
“If anyone asks you for something that is not food or water, refer them to your site leader so we can get the stuff next week,” El-Kolalli tells the 30 students.
After those reminders, a handful of them set off for Good Samaritan Inn, a hostel where most of the residents can’t afford dinner.
The lobby at the inn doubles as a living room, and, now, a dining room, as the students set up at a table right near the entrance. The volunteers hand a sandwich, water bottle, and a pastry to grateful residents who humbly say thank you as they make their way down the assembly line.
After about 20 minutes of socializing, the volunteers say their goodbyes and rejoin the other students at the Gasparilla Pirate ship dock by the Tampa Convention Center. There, they distribute the rest of the food they prepared.
One of the people mingling with the students is Heather Westgate. She met the students on a Friday a few years ago, when she was hungry and homeless. Now, she’s back to visit her friends.
“Everybody that I’ve met from Project Downtown has become extended family to me,” says Westgate. “It makes me feel like I still have people out there that care about me.”
That familiarity is visible between Alkishawi and Westgate, who spend the rest of the night standing close together and gushing like sisters about Alkishawi’s wedding. Westgate is on the guest list.
The group gathers one last time before leaving downtown. This time, for prayer, led by student Saeed Sinan.
“We only serve you for the sake of our lord, Allah, and we do not accept any reward or any thanks from you,” Sinan recites, quoting a verse from the Quran.
And with that, the students go their separate ways. Until next Friday.