Nonprofit Launched by Fla. Woman Who Beat Addiction Is a 'Glimmer of Hope' to Struggling Families
Stephanie Bowman of One Heart for Women and Children has helped millions since the pandemic, including Mike Pitsky, Tammara Vidal and their combined 18 kids
Around this time last year, Stephanie Bowman was beginning to notice the impact of being featured in PEOPLE's first-ever Kindness Issue.
Calls came pouring in about the 54-year-old's life's work, One Heart for Women and Children, a nonprofit known for providing resources to underprivileged and underserved families in Florida.
"I got a call from a gentleman asking to talk to his daughter, who was 15 and just getting clean and sober," says Bowman, who had opened up to PEOPLE about overcoming addiction and turning her life around. "She was able to share some of her struggles with me, and after reading the article on where I am today, she said, 'I just see that there's hope.'"
Another time, Bowman received a call from a 58-year-old man who wanted to send a check to "make restitution" for mistakes in his past.
"He said, 'People said that I can't change, but I'm a changed person, and now every month, 33% of my paycheck goes to people who are somehow, someway helping other women,'" she recalls of their conversation.
It's interactions like these that have inspired Bowman to continue leading One Heart.
"In getting clean and sober, I had no idea how many people that I would make an impact on," says Bowman, whose efforts are needed now more than ever amid a pandemic that has created countless hardships. "Every day, somebody is out there waiting to be helped, to see that glimmer of hope and to know they're not alone."
At the beginning of the pandemic in March, One Heart was faced with a choice in order to follow Orlando's safety guidelines: either temporarily shut down or regroup and adapt to the new safety mandates.
"We were like, 'Oh my gosh. What are we going to do?'" Bowman says. "At the time, I was with a group, so we closed the doors and said, 'We've got 30 minutes to figure this out because we're not closing down.'"
"It wasn't an option, even for a day, because there were at least 300 people who were coming in for food that day, and God did not get us to where we were for nothing," she adds.
Instead of having people physically come through their choice pantry, Bowman and her team started to create to-go bags — each divided by items like perishables, nonperishables and household supplies — and handed them out via a drive-through service.
The service boomed, and Bowman estimates that One Heart has helped feed over 2.5 million people since March.
"We went from 3,000 people in the month of February to 18,117 people in March. By April, we saw 25,000 people," Bowman explains. "And what we found is a majority of the people who have been needing food from March are still needing food now."
Couple Mike Pitsky and Tammara Vidal, along with their combined 18 kids, are among the people who say Bowman has impacted their life beyond measure by providing essentials.
"When we first met Stephanie, she took us under her wing," says Vidal, a mom of eight kids ranging in age from 3 to 21. "Anytime we need something, she's there for us. She welcomes you with this big smile and is just so happy-go-lucky."
Adds Pitsky, a father of 10 children, ages 4 to 22: "She brings out the positive in people and is in her element when she's giving. It makes me want to help as much as I can, and I'm not naturally like that."
Pitsky, 43, and Vidal, 39, both previously struggled with substance abuse. They first met in 2017 through Pitsky's late wife Mary.
After Mary died in a car crash in June 2019, Pitsky and Vidal began to lean on one another and soon developed a romantic relationship.
They eventually blended their large families, which have continued to expand: Vidal's daughter Kristina, 21, is preparing to welcome her first child, and Pitsky's daughter Laura, 22, is pregnant with her second.
While struggling to find jobs during COVID-19, the couple has had trouble supporting their children — 12 of whom still live with them in their small home — and transporting everyone in their single vehicle.
"It gets really stressful, especially with all these kids. You obviously have to roof them and feed them," says Vidal, who is on disability. "But the older they get, the more expensive the stuff they want is. And we don't have the money."
"The needs change day to day, but they're always there," adds Pitsky, who has been out of work since suffering injuries in the accident.
After Vidal reached out to Bowman in 2018, One Heart has been able to help Pitsky and Vidal obtain essentials, including diapers, clothing, shoes and even a bike for Vidal's 18-year-old son Jason, who has autism.
With the holidays fast approaching, Bowman and her team have no plans of stopping their efforts — for Pitsky and Vidal, as well as the 700 other families who are on their list.
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Through One Heart's social media outreach, Amazon Smile partnership and 12 Days of Giving initiative, through which they will collect different items each day ahead of the holidays, Bowman is confident that her community will continue to show up for those in need.
"Since the pandemic, we've noticed people being more intentional with their relationships, being more thoughtful and doing things for other people without anybody noticing," she says. "That... is enough to shift the sail and change something."
"I am so thankful for a community that has come together and rallied around whoever is in need — and to watch the beauty that has come out of it," Bowman adds. "What we found this year is even though the load is heavier at One Heart, I'm not carrying it alone."
Those interested in donating or volunteering with One Heart for Women and Children can so do here.
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