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Debra Susie and Florida Impact - 30 years breaking barriers to hunger

Debra Susie and Florida Impact - 30 years breaking barriers to hunger

Missions and Outreach

Debra Susie, who in December stepped away after 30 years as president and CEO of the nonprofit Florida Impact, called it "falling in love.”

“I walked into the building (a place in Tallahassee then called the Farm Building), it was all nonprofits for things like elder housing and common cause in this low-rent building. It was like falling in love with a person. I just fell in love," Susie said about her first visit to Impact.

Debra Susie, staff and partners worked tirelessly to help pass the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in Dec. 2010, authorizing after school meals for the first time. Shown here, meals are being served at the Sisters for Abundant Living's mobile unit in Miami-Dade county.

"There were posters all over the walls. There were stacks and stacks of paper. The place was a mess. There was an energy...we were going to change things." Within three years the woman excited and awed became interim director. "Then they just went ahead and kept me," she said.

Described by 12-year Impact board member Clarke Campbell-Evans of the Florida Conference as "one of the leanest organizations of its kind, laser-focused on mobilizing communities against hunger and poverty," it has since managed to leverage $4 billion in public funds and to serve roughly 800,000 low-income Floridians, many of them children.

The Attorney General, U.S. Navy and God

Susie, who grew up across the street from a Methodist church and studied religion at both Florida Southern College and Florida State University, said she knew from the start she needed religious leadership on her side in Tallahassee.

Referencing an early political battle with a then unregulated title loan industry opening temporary storefronts in low-income neighborhoods and charging 264-percent interest, Impact formed a partnership few could glance away from.

"We had the Attorney General, we had the U.S. Navy and we had God," Susie said. The nonprofit and its governmental, military and faith-based affiliations were looking at how the loans were preying on the poor.

Today, Impact's board includes esteemed business leaders, elected officials and partners like Wal-Mart and United Way. Beginning with the late Bishop Lloyd Knox, an activist of racial justice as far back as the 1950s, and Bishop Ken Carter, "involved almost officially before he was in the position," the so-called God representation has always included someone from the Methodist faith giving voice to the underprivileged.

Florida Impact works alongside hundreds of nonprofit organizations each year nationwide. Actor-director Jeff Bridges appearing on NBC Nightly News in Aug. 2014 representing No Kid Hungry.

In pre-Disney days that translated to agriculture—farmers and migrant workers.

"There was so little going on that side of things," Susie said. "Lobbyists could basically stand in the back of the committee room, nod their heads yes or no, and that's how the committee members would vote. This was the biggest industry and they knew all these folks."

Starting with FSU religious professors and the Florida Council of Churches in 1979, efforts were made to get politicians to tour the fields and see farmer’s living conditions. It was decided this would become the "launching issue," as Susie referred to it, that would form Florida Impact.

Campbell-Evans, also director of Missional Engagement at the Florida Conference, remembers Knox, then a local pastor, picking him up at 5:30 a.m. one Saturday 40 years ago for a drive to Winter Haven.

"I got a glimpse of these horrific conditions…of farmworkers living in grove-owner provided row houses where there was no front door. There was no ventilation unless you left a blanket or something off your little stall.

“Because it was raining the day we were there, they were cooking inside the stalls and the smoke was horrific. You could hear children coughing. There was no running water. The women had to port water from about a mile away."

Campbell-Evans added that it was the first time in his life he had witnessed someone taking their faith and trying to convert it into something responding to real poverty. "It took my breath away," he said.

Today, Impact is continually pushing the envelope to secure needed funding for programs and policies addressing hunger: school breakfast programs, after-school meals and summer food service initiatives.

In the state’s seven largest districts—Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange, Duval, Palm Beach and Polk—more than half the students qualify for free or reduced meals.

"We can't wait for the ultimate solution, which is to have wages that meet the needs where people can live the American dream,” Susie said. "Until we are able to reach this, there are generations of children growing up where their needs need to be addressed.”

In addition to schools and libraries, meals in places like Tampa are delivered on refurbished school buses and refrigerated trucks to migrant neighborhoods when school is not in session. Across the state, just under 16 million meals were served to children in a single summer in 2015.

Eating healthy with Meals on Wheels provided by South Florida and Children's Services Council of Broward County, one of 3,800 statewide food service locations known as Summer BreakSpot reaching out to children in need when schools are not in session.

"It never addresses the root of the problem," Susie stated emphatically.

Even in Palm Beach County, where multimillion dollar mansions paint pictures of wealth, Susie states three of four children qualify for reduced price meals. It took four long years to create a statewide mandate to bring breakfast into schools using dollars that had already been approved.

From tent cities to change

She described her early days at Impact as helping bring the plight of an ever growing homeless population to the attention of Florida legislators. A tent city was staged on the capital lawn. Susie stayed the night, dampened by a whirling sprinkler system.

"The thing that stays with people is when they actually experience it," said Susie. “It makes them converts for the cause and makes them passionate."

In the morning, she walked out onto the street to find a restaurant where she could use a real bathroom. "It was very enlightening. I was disheveled. I felt nasty," she added. "People were looking at me in a way that was very enlightening."

Susie, talking over the phone in her last days after three decades of work, described her now empty office, the stacks of boxes reminding her it would soon be time to move on and the planned life-changing move to Seattle where her daughter lives. "Our job has largely been knocking out the barriers to access," she said. "I feel confident there are more children who have access to a full complement of nutrition now than there were 30 years ago.

"I'm very proud of that,” Susie said. “But there’s always more to do. You want these programs to become public policy. You don’t want to keep going back to the well each year.”

"It's bringing people to the table and everybody contributing according to their abilities to tackle something substantive and meaningful," added Campbell-Evans. "It gives voice to communities that need the advocacy and justice."

--Doug Long is managing editor of the Florida Conference.

Editor’s Note: Florida Impact has launched a “30 for 30” initiative, which ends Feb. 28, aimed at raising $30,000 in honor of Susie’s 30 years of service. As a result of a three-year matching grant from the Social Innovation Fund, all donations will be doubled in value. Donations will help Impact continue striving to close hunger gaps in communities statewide in the years ahead.

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