Destin is known as an affluent community where tourists flock and spend millions of dollars annually on lodging, dining, shopping and other leisure activities, but behind that shiny exterior, there are kind hearts hard at work to care for the city’s less fortunate.



“People look around and think we are a rich community and there is no need, but that’s not true,” said Jennifer Lee from St. Andrews By-The-Sea Episcopal Church, which has fed more than 900 people as part of its Monday hot lunch program, dished out more than 2,000 free bag lunches, and donated more than 200 bikes to the area’s homeless this year.



Dec. 13 was Arts, Culture and Non-Profit Day for the Destin Forward Class, and a variety of organizations, such as Sinfonia, the Okaloosa Arts Alliance, the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation, United Way of Okaloosa/Walton Counties and Children In Crisis, shared not only their missions with the class, but the heartbreaking and success stories they see on a daily basis.



While it’s easy to dismiss the area’s homeless population as freeloaders, organizations like St. Andrews do everything possible to put a hot meal in their stomachs and warm clothes on their backs.



But they can’t do it alone, Lee told the class. The church is currently in need of supplies, such as bikes and bike parts, small-sized men and women’s clothing, canned meats, sleeping bags and backpacks, as well as volunteer involvement.



With the holiday season approaching, Lee said some food pantries and organizations are having trouble keeping up with the demand.



“The food pantry is so, so busy right now,” she said.
Listening to the speakers, it was clearly evident that the key to a community’s success is a giving heart and a kindness for our fellow man.



As the child of a single mother that raised her two children on food stamps and help from strangers, there will always be a place in my heart for the people, churches and organizations that take time out of their day to assist those, who, for whatever reason, cannot assist themselves.



My family didn’t always know where our meals were coming from, but we did know that thanks to the generosity of a community, we had those meals.



I will always remember those who have helped me along the way. It’s that spirit of giving that makes communities a better place.



While I took a lot away from Thursday’s experience, the one message that stood out to me the most was the cry to “find your passion” and to “give and volunteer.”



In our hectic lives it’s easy to sit on the couch and turn on the picture box after a long week. But to be able to give back to our community and those who may not enjoy the comforts we often take for granted is an experience you’ll never forget.



Log Reporter Matt Algarin is a member of this year’s Destin Forward class. He will be filing stories monthly chronicling his experiences in the Chamber of Commerce’s leadership program.