During a time when families needed support, these Ocala organizations sprung into action.
OCALA, FL - When the pandemic hit in 2020, it added even more stress to busy parents' lives, and many families faced uncertainty surrounding childcare, schooling, jobs, and more.
However, the city of Ocala sprung into action, and as a mom with two preschoolers, I'm more than grateful our Ocala community stepped up.
*Note that many more organizations could be added to this list, but I am focusing on the first five that came to mind and positively impacted my family.
These 5 Ocala organizations stepped up to help families during the pandemic (including mine)
1. Marion County Schools
Did you know that during the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, Marion County Schools provided nearly 475,000 free student meals? The district's Summer Food Service Program for Ocala kids helped my family out so much.
During that time, with two young kids, a husband back at work, and a full-time work-at-home job, it was a struggle planning and getting proper meals on the table.
Not only did the free lunches assist us with our budget, but they also reduced the stress of grocery shopping for lunches and preparing meals.
We were excited to hear the program will resume this summer from June 7-July 26 and expects to dish out another 200,000 meals to kids!
According to the Marion School website, "Anyone 18 or younger is eligible for this program which requires no application or income verification."
However, children should be with a parent/guardian when picking up meals. If the child can't attend, the parent/guardian will need to show identification for each applicable child. Children receive 10 meals each week (breakfast and lunch).
Lunch pickup runs on Mondays from 9-9:30 am at the following Marion County locations.
- Belleview Elementary
- Belleview High
- College Park Elementary
- N.H. Jones Elementary
- Dunnellon Elementary
- East Marion Elementary
- Emerald Shores Elementary
- Forest High
- Fort King Middle
- Fort McCoy School
- Horizon Academy at Marion Oaks
- Lake Weir Middle
- Liberty Middle
- Maplewood Elementary
- Marion Oaks Elementary
- North Marion Middle
- Oakcrest Elementary
- Reddick-Collier Elementary
- Romeo Elementary
- South Ocala Elementary
- Vanguard High
- West Port High
Contact the Food and Nutrition Services Office at 352-671-4190 for more info.
2. The Ocala West United Methodist Church
I joined the Ocala West United Methodist Church at the beginning of 2020 because of the church's strong Family Ministries program, thought-provoking sermons, and community outreach.
And when the pandemic hit, husband and wife co-lead pastors - Jen and Michale Sims - didn't miss a beat. They shifted services to online, and throughout 2020, my family tuned in for inspiring messages of hope and love when we needed them the most.
From Christian rock songs, relevant sermons, and even church member home videos, these online services helped my family through the pandemic.
During those evenings, my kiddos watched biblical videos, read bible stories, and played games with friends and church staff safely online.
Although Zooming with a 2 and 5-year-old wasn't always easy, my boys still look forward to the KidJam every week and are excited when it starts up in person again.
Family Ministries also dropped off school bags filled with supplies to our doorstep and even provided a box of Christian-inspired crafts and supplies during the early days of the pandemic.
Plus, the church has two peaceful, spacious playgrounds onsite, where my boys and I continued to get in some safe outdoor recreational time.
We are blessed to be able to call Ocala West our church home.
To find out more about Ocala West United Methodist Church, visit ocalawestumc.com or call 352-854-9550.
3. The Ocala Parks and Recreation Department
I followed the Ocala Parks and Rec on Facebook and was ecstatic when they posted the Ocala organization handing out free activity bags to kids.
Excited to get out of the house and receive some new activities to occupy my sons, I dressed 'em up and ventured to one of the listed pick-up locations.
We were greeted by the staff, who handed us a bag full of goodies. Inside were workbooks for various ages, craft materials, a well-written children's book describing Covid in simple terms, and more.
These activities occupied my kids through the week, and the children's book described what was going on in our world in a way that I couldn't.
Fast forward to now, and the recreation department is responsible for numerous Ocala playgrounds, which eased us into outdoor public spaces and did wonders for my boys.
Check out their Summer 2021 guide that lists more Ocala Parks and Rec offerings, including summer activities, fun outdoor locations, and more.
4. The Appleton Museum of Art
The Appleton Museum of Art also handed out packages to families. My family attended, and we were grateful for the masked volunteers handing out bags of art supplies.
After all, those free and simple craft projects kept my rugrats busy for weeks.
"To assure children were able to continue creating while at home, we assembled over 3,000 art kits that included watercolors, construction paper, and more. We were able to personally distribute them to a number of community partners and hosted distribution events at the Appleton Museum, CF Ocala Campus, and CF Hampton Center. At a time when the museum was closed, it was such a great way for us to connect with our young visitors in their neighborhoods and ensure they had access to the arts." - Vanessa Scott, Appleton Museum Specialist
In addition to the art kits, Appleton offered virtual craft and programs online.
"During the Appleton Museum's temporary closure last year," Appleton Museum Specialist Vanessa Scott shared, "the staff looked at different ways to remain connected with the community and offer meaningful access to the arts and the museum's collection. The education team launched "Teaching Tuesdays," a weekly series of instructional art project videos created to inspire art-making while at home. The curatorial team designed monthly online talks with artists whose artwork is part of the museum's permanent collection."
The Appleton Museum aimed to create free and engaging learning opportunities that went beyond the museum's walls and into the users' homes. Appleton's award-winning free app became a central multi-generational space that brought the museum into people's homes, allowing adults and children to enjoy the artwork in the collection as well as the art-making videos and online games, such as puzzles and crosswords.
To learn more about the Appleton, visit www.appletonmuseum.org or call 352-291-4455.
5. The Marion County Library
During a time when 13 million children may experience food insecurity, The Marion County Library continues to make a difference with their Summer Breakspot Grab and Go Program.
The Marion County Library offered free meals at multiple library locations for ages 18 and under. Sponsored by the USDA and provided by the Shores Assembly of God, this charitable event did not go unnoticed.
My family made a Thursday habit of attending this drive-thru style drop-off where masked volunteers handed out take-home meals for kids.
When many Ocala families were struggling mentally, emotionally, and financially, the Marion County Library stepped in and offered one less worry by providing children with well-rounded, nutritious meals.
Dinners were kid-friendly, and my boys loved the spaghetti and meatballs, chicken, and more served with veggies, milk, and healthy desserts. Fruit cocktail, anyone?
The good news, this program runs again this summer from June 1 - Aug. 6
All locations serve meals from 5–6 pm, except for Dunnellon, which begins at 4:30. And, if the kids aren't in the car, no worries, just bring their identification to show.
Check out the summer 2021 rotation below:
- Mondays: Reddick Public Library
- Tuesdays: Belleview Public Library/Fort McCoy Public Library
- Thursdays: Dunnellon Public Library/Freedom Public Library
- Fridays: Forest Public Library/Marion Oaks Public Library
The Bottom Line
Author, teacher, and speaker, Margaret J. Wheatley once said, "There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about." During the pandemic, I rediscovered that our Ocala community cares about families, children and uniting to help those in need. I will forever be grateful for these 5 Ocala organizations that stepped up to help families through the pandemic . . . including mine. THANK YOU!
Do you know of another Ocala organization that positively impacted your family during the pandemic? We'd love to hear more in the comments below.