Just before dawn, the streets in a well-established, tree-lined residential neighborhood of South Tampa are quiet and dark, until you come to one home ablaze with lights and abuzz with activity. The scent of freshly baked muffins wafts out the front door.
Inside, the kitchen is filled with Dr. Sylvia Campbell, her daughters, friends, and former patients, many of whom are breast cancer survivors. Forged into a unit by their feelings of gratitude and a desire to pay it forward, they call themselves “Kindness Matters.” After what they’ve been through and what they’ve seen, they know how much it really does. Alma Jordan and Maribel Figueroa pack one of the many mats woven from plastic grocery bags by Dr. Campbell's church. The mats provide insulation for those whose only bed is the ground.
One Saturday a month, they gather in the Campbell family kitchen to assemble “care bags” for the homeless. The bags, filled with water, fruit, and freshly made peanut butter sandwiches, are placed in large wagons, along with picnic thermoses of steaming hot water to make instant coffee and hot chocolate.
Mats woven from plastic grocery bags made by members of Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church
are tightly rolled and placed in the wagons next to small fleece blankets. Even in Florida, one needs protection from the damp chill of night air when the ground is your only bed.
The assembling and packing complete, the wagons are placed into a caravan of SUVs that heads toward Bayshore Boulevard, where the process is reversed. The wagons are unloaded, checked to be sure each load is secure, then pulled away by a Kindness Matters volunteer. The wagons rumble across the pavement, creating the only sound to be heard while the first light of dawn appears over Hillsborough Bay.
As the sunrise turns from an orange slit in the darkness to a horizon-spanning display of brilliant red and gold, the group stops to appreciate the splendor before continuing north on Bayshore, where they check each bench overlooking the water to see if anyone is sleeping there. On this day, there is no one. Dr. Campbell says that is the likely result of an increased police presence in advance of the Gasparilla 5K run scheduled for the following weekend.
With only the light from their car's headlamps, Meaghan Hoy and Kem Toole, begin the long pre-dawn trek to deliver food, water, blankets, and books to the homeless of Tampa.
The group exits Bayshore near downtown where they discover a woman lying on a concrete walkway under a bridge across from a Publix supermarket. Shoppers bustling through the nearby parking lot laden with grocery bags make a stark contrast to the still figure in the sleeping bag.
A Kindness Matters volunteer quietly leaves a care bag and bottle of water by the woman’s side and the group moves on.
Their arrival at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on the Hillsborough River downtown causes a small crowd to gather. “We’ve been looking for you,” one man says as he accepts a hot cup of coffee. “You’re looking good today,” comments one of the volunteers. "I got a haircut yesterday,” he says, adding with a sly smile, “I kept my beard because you said you liked it.”
There’s an easy rapport between giver and receiver. Many of the occupants of the park are known to the volunteers even as their stories remain a mystery. When asked their names, the reply is often a street version of a nom de guerre. Family identities like the families themselves have faded into a murky past.
Sitting close, holding hands, on a bench looking out at the river, “Maggie and Cowboy” agree to have their photo taken. She Maggie and Cowboy, a homeless couple, enjoy the contents of their care bag at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
smooths her hair, he adjusts his hat; they smile and strike a pose. Seeing them at that moment, they could be any couple enjoying a Saturday morning in the park -- if only all their worldly possessions weren’t in bundles beside them.
“Got any books,” one man asks? He chooses a romance novel from the Kindness Matters “traveling library.” Dr. Campbell remarks that books are one of their most requested items. Escaping into another reality must be very appealing when the one you live in poses so many challenges.
As the group leaves the park, they pass an older woman on a bench. “Oh it’s Diana,” one of the volunteers says. Diana’s face lights up in a warm, sweet smile, the kind of smile Madison Avenue uses to show grandmotherly love. She looks through the care bag and nods approvingly at its contents. Sitting atop her belongs is a stuffed bear wearing a hat that says “Smile.” The volunteers comment on what a cute bear he is. “Oh, he sings when he’s happy,” Diana says. The group pulls away to the sound of a bear serenade.
Recognizing limitations of care
Heading for their next stop, the volunteers encounter a woman on Zack Street. Unlike others, she doesn't acknowledge their presence. Her head is down and she looks ill. There is a nasty bruise on her cheek. Dr. Campbell leans toward her to get a better look, a move that elicits a defensive pullback and a stern “Don’t touch me.” After a moment, she says, “Someone pushed me.”
Diana, and her constant companion "Smile Bear," offers her own warm smile to the Kindness Matters volunteers.
“There’s nothing we can do in these cases,” Dr. Campbell says. “We can’t touch them or even offer medical advice. All we can do is tell them to go to a clinic.”
It is late morning. Kindness Matters has been walking and ministering for many miles and many hours when they arrive at their last stop, Gaslight Park in the center of downtown.
As soon as the wagons come into view, a line forms. The care bags and water bottles are nearly gone; there aren’t enough to go around. The hot water is running low. One volunteer ducks into a nearby deli, where a young man behind the counter offers to fill up the thermos saying he’s happy to help.
Despite the disappointment of low supplies, there is no hint of anger from the people on the street. In fact, they express the opposite. Each cup of coffee is met with a “Thank you, ma’am,” or “May I please have some sugar?” Looking over the scene, one man says wistfully, “I bought my son a wagon just like that.” It is hard not to ask, “Where is that son, now?”
Today’s Kindness Matters mission is complete. Leaving the park, Dr. Campbell points out pieces of cardboard scattered on the ground. “That is where someone sleeps,” she says.
There is no way to know how someone’s baby ends up with a piece of cardboard as a bedroom. During our outing, no visible behavior indicates the influence of drugs or alcohol. There was more a feeling of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys: Lives that somehow went missing and couldn’t find their way home.
Within the structure of their current reality, when weather determines where and how well you sleep, and food insecurity is a constant, Tampa’s homeless have one thing they can count on -- a monthly visit from a group of angels in pink T-shirts and walking shoes who know just how much Kindness Matters.
How it all came together
Dr. Sylvia Campbell is rare, in many ways. She’s a native of Florida, a state in which only 36 percent of the population can claim (L-R) Gia Metcalf, left, Maribell Figueroa, a breast cancer survivor, and Sylvia Campbell, a breast cancer surgeon, help feed Tampa's homeless in the early morning hours.
the same. She’s a skilled surgeon in a field dominated by men, and she remains in private practice when most doctors have sold out to health networks.
Raised in Orlando, the second oldest of five children, Sylvia Deal dreamed of being a marine biologist. That was until one of her sisters contracted polio and one of her brothers nearly drowned.
“I realized if we were stranded on a desert island, as a marine biologist I couldn’t help anyone,'' Campbell says. "As a doctor, I could.”
Married at age 20 after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, she moved on to medical school at the University of South Florida
in Tampa. Husband Robert returned from being stationed in Korea and pursued a law degree.
As children arrived, the pace increased. “We arranged our schedules to be there for them 100 percent,” she says. “Even when they were young, they knew what I was doing was important.''
Her medical career began in trauma care. Remembering those times, she says, “There were no real specialties back then. When you work in trauma, you have to think outside the box. I was the only woman surgeon in Hillsborough County for a long time.”
Now, 80 percent of Dr. Campbell’s practice involves breast cancer. “Seeing my patients come out on the other side is a privilege,” she says.
Bonding with those patients throughout their journey led to the idea in 2006 to participate in a Susan G. Koman 3 Day Walk. The grueling 60-mile trek held around the country requires extensive training and even then it tests the participant’s limits of endurance. For Dr. Campbell and her former patients, it was also a celebration of life. They named themselves Team 211 in honor of “two steps, one goal, and one lifetime.”
They committed to raising money for cancer research by walking as often as they could. Training began with brisk walks up Bayshore Boulevard and through downtown Tampa where they would often see the homeless on the streets and in parks.
In 2015, Team 211 was participating in a Susan G. Komen 3 Day Walk in Pennsylvania when a tropical storm came to call.
“It was rainy, cold, and miserable,” Dr. Campbell says. The third day of the race routed the team through the city of Philadelphia where they were stunned at the number of homeless who were also wet and cold. Dr. Campbell recalls, “People were throwing power bars and bottles of water at us but the homeless were ignored; they had no food or shelter. We gave them everything we had on us then stopped at the next store and bought water and snacks to give out along the rest of the route.”
Once back in sunny, warm Tampa the team realized that their training already took them on a route where they could interact with their local homeless population.
“This effort has brought us even closer together,” Dr. Campbell says. “We were inspired by what we were able to do in Philadelphia. Just because you’re homeless shouldn’t mean you’re invisible. They deserve respect and understanding. ... They deserve to be seen. Kindness Matters was born.
Counting on a core group
As with most volunteer organizations, there is always a core group you can count on to be dedicated to the mission. Two of Dr. Campbell’s former patients who are part of that Kindness Matters core are Rosie Abbs and Bella Figueroa.
Both healthcare professionals themselves, a diagnosis of cancer came as a shock.
Chelsey Crandall and Meaghan Hoy make sandwiches for care bags for the homeless before sunrise in their mother, Dr. Campbell's kitchen.
Bella, a care liaison for Consulate Healthcare, performs patient assessments at three Tampa Bay hospitals to determine a patients’ readiness for short-term physical therapy says, “I’m a survivor. ...I’m blessed with family and kids, and with knowing I’m going to live longer, so I’m going to pay it forward.”
Bella admits that when Team 211 first started, she was apprehensive.
“We didn’t know how the people we wanted to help would react. You don’t know their history. Now we’re friends. I’ve learned a valuable lesson; you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Rosie, a registered nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa since 1999, started walking with Team 211 in 2010 because she knew and admired Dr. Campbell. In a searing twist of fate, Rosie was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016.
“Now I walk as a survivor,” she says.
Rosie, too, speaks of all the support she received from her family, friends, and teammates, and contrasts that experience with the treatment she sees of the homeless.
“They’re not getting any help. They have no transportation. They have no place to go. What we are doing, helping them, is very therapeutic. In many ways, they are helping us.
When asked how she would sum up all that she has done and is doing, Dr. Campbell replies, “When you’re diagnosed with cancer, it shatters your world. It’s up to you how you choose to put it back together. Our team puts it together in a way to give others hope. It’s why we gather each New Year’s morning on Bayshore to see the first sunrise of a new year: It gives us hope.''
According to the 2017 Homeless Count in Hillsborough County, on any given night there are at least 1,549 homeless men, women, and children in Tampa-Hillsborough County. For more information, visit the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative.