As Thanksgiving approaches, people all over Palm Beach County are uniting to make sure that every home in our county has a bountiful Thanksgiving celebration.
Others are helping people one family at a time, doing what they can do with what they have to give. We sat down with one of those people whose efforts are lightening the load for people all over Palm Beach County.
In a small office around the corner from the 24 hour chapel of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and School in Palm Beach Gardens Karen Cook, Founder and Director of Hearts of Palm, took time from her busy day to sit down with us and share what she is doing.
Karen began the mission of Hearts of Palm (HOP). The mission has blossomed into an outreach ministry of St. Mark’s. Founded in 2009, Hearts of Palm was initially created to be a host site for youth groups in preparation for their mission trips. Karen Cook shared the birth and metamorphosis Hearts of Palm underwent to reach where it is now, helping the community one person, one family at a time.
“I created this outreach ministry, called Hearts of Palm. Jim and I started it because my husband and I had taken a lot of kids—youth, and kids, on a lot of mission trips prior to coming here,” Karen shared. “Throughout his ministry, he’s been an Episcopal priest. For 30 years, we’ve always gone to host sites. Then I said, we need to be a host site. We need to have groups come here.”
It took about two years for the couple to build the ministry which keeps on growing today.
“I spent quite a bit of time in the community introducing myself to all the local, nonprofits. Because what it was designed to do and to be is a host site so that I could have youth groups – middle school, high school youth groups come for one week at a time in the summer for their summer mission trip.”
Hearts of Palm describes itself as “an interdenominational mission host site for youth and adults who seek to put their faith into action through serving.” The HOP House is located on campus where the young participants are given challenging and rewarding service opportunities by day and a safe and secure setting as they retire for the night. Karen provides everything they need, from housing and meals to programming and scheduling of activities for the week.
Youth groups are exposed to a variety of tailor-fitted projects that will open their hearts and mind to serving, just as Jesus loves to serve others. Usually, participants arrive to Hearts of Palm on a Sunday. From Monday to Thursday, the kids are sent to the community in Palm Beach to do volunteer work and Friday is a free day where some participants can fly back home.
Affordable housing in Palm Beach County
Karen was connecting and working with other nonprofits in Palm Beach County when Hearts of Palm morphed into a different kind of community service.
“I started working with the local code enforcement officers. If they’re driving around, they could put a code violation on you when your house needs to be painted or the yards to be cleaned up. We can be there right away. We’ve done well over 80 code violation homes, usually for elderly people or folks who just needed help.”
She told the story of parishioners, Fred and Mary, who were about to retire several years ago. They wanted to help Hearts of Palm and asked her if the ministry has a need for a house that can be used for transitional housing for families in need.
When St. Mark’s bought the three-bedroom house, it needed an overhaul, from plumbing and electricity to floor tiling and landscaping. “Affordable housing is basically nonexistent in Palm Beach County,” said Karen. “I said, yes. So, we purchased a house, and I renovated it. It took me about eleven months and about killed me. But I did it.”
Hearts of Palm, together with partner nonprofits and agencies, help change lives of people in their community who are struggling for their daily needs.
“We partnered with the Lord’s Place to put a family in there that has graduated from their homeless program but just needs a little bit more time to become independent, save, and do everything they can get their hands on, so we don’t do it for profit.”
She added, “We’re good friends with Diana Stanley, the CEO. They tell us how much this family can afford, and it’s awesome. The leases are between St. Mark’s and the Lord’s Place. So we don’t have to be the landlord.”
With rents skyrocketing here in Palm Beach County, a family can pay as little as $625 for a brand-new house here through Hearts of Palm. A lease is typically for two years, but St. Mark’s can extend the term if needed.
Sickle Cell Foundation Partnership
A family in need linked Hearts of Palm to another family-oriented, nonprofit organization, Sickle Cell Foundation of Palm Beach County & Treasure Coast. CEO Shalonda Warren contacted Karen to help a mother with four daughters, the youngest, who was 12 years old then, had sickle cell anemia. The foundation already raised $30,000 for them. Shalonda read about the ministry of Hearts of Palm and thought Karen could help them.
The family was living in Lake Worth in a house infested with black mold. They had to be evacuated immediately from a house that was dangerous for them to live in, but Karen had no idea how or where to start. “The only thing I knew was my common sense, that I gotta get this family out of this house soon. Where do I go?” she asked.
Another community partner offered Karen a townhouse for rent at a reduced cost. Within 10 days, the family moved out of their home and into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom, fully furnished townhouse on Congress Avenue. It then took 13 months for Hearts of Palm to rebuild the house in Lake Worth.
“She (youngest daughter) was taken off a bone marrow transplant list. We moved her family into a totally brand-new house, totally furnished down to the potato peeler,” Karen beamed as she recalled the story. “By the time we moved them back into the house, she was well enough, healthy enough to be back on the bone marrow transplant list.”
Christmas is a sacred holiday, especially to Karen whose heart is burdened to help struggling families. This year, she is working with eight families. She asks for each family’s Christmas wish list—every member gets to write their own, not only the children. Karen compiles the list of items and searches Amazon for those gifts. She marks the links from Amazon and creates a master list to send out to donors.
“I’ll send an email out, like the third week, the second or third weekend in November. And I’ll have 250 gifts on it, and they’re gone within hours,” Karen revealed. “All they have to do is click on the link. I have everything sent to my house, which looks like the Amazon Warehouse!”
Each item is beautifully-wrapped with a ribbon and a tag for the family member who requested it. “All gifts come from Santa,” she said.
What’s unique about Karen’s Christmas gift-giving is that she knows the people who will be receiving the gifts. She writes their story, eliminating any details that would point to the identity of the recipient, and she sends it to the benefactors. “I just write a summary title, like Beach Family so that, they know the family who they’re buying for.”
Karen pointed out that helping families in need is a grounding experience for her. “It’s very humbling. I get to walk with these people, be part of their stories. You know, I’d be part of their lives.”
She helps people because God placed her in a situation where she can help them. “We can give out eight families and spend thousands of dollars. I don’t care if I get a thank you. It’s not about the thank you. It’s about putting a smile on these kids’ faces on Christmas morning from Santa. They’re not forgotten, you know, and they’ll never forget it.”