It was in a physics class that Giuseppe Torregrossa sat, wondering not about matter and energy, but about where he would get his next meal.
“I was praying to God about what to do,” said Torregrossa, 34, of Auburndale. “I was always hungry, always falling asleep in class. You can’t afford to take classes like physics and chemistry and not be able to focus.
Three years into his education at Polk State, Torregrossa discovered My Brother’s Keeper, a service that provides food and assistance to needy students.
“It was like the heavens opened up for me,” Torregrossa said. “My Brother’s Keeper was vital in helping me concentrate and satiate my hunger. It came just in time.”
My Brother’s Keeper celebrated its second anniversary with a luncheon last week, where Torregrossa delivered the keynote address, sharing with several dozen attendees the difference it has made in his life.
My Brother’s Keeper began with a bowl of cereal bars on the desk of Carole Toney, a psychology professor and coordinator of veterans’ services. When she realized that some students were taking multiple cereal bars because they had no other source of food, Toney took action.
Collaborating with Katrina Smith, also a psychology professor, Jennifer Fiorenza, director of grants administration, and others throughout the College, Toney established My Brother’s Keeper.
My Brother’s Keeper, housed in a modular building on the Winter Haven campus, operates solely on donations and volunteer labor to provide food, toiletries, scholarships and a host of other services.
Since it opened in 2012, nearly 1,200 students have sought services from My Brother’s Keeper. Approximately 70 percent of students receive food, with the remainder receiving a variety of other services.
“We recently paid off a payday loan. The interest on those loans can be as high as 200 percent,” Toney said Thursday. “Had we not done that, the student probably would have gone to jail.”
At Thursday’s luncheon, Toney also commented on the often-shocking reality of homeless or hungry college students.
“It’s not obvious. You have to look for it,” she said. “The kids who are falling asleep in class, they’re tired because they haven’t had anywhere to sleep all night. The ones who are squinting in the back of class, it’s because they can’t afford eyeglasses. The ones whose backpacks are crammed with stuff, it’s because that’s all they own. These are the little things that tell us students need help.”
Students receive help from My Brother’s Keeper, and students dole it out, too. My Brother’s Keeper is a service-learning project, with students carrying out the day-to-day work.
Student supervisor Casmore Shaw oversees a handful of student volunteers who carry out the day-to-day work of My Brother’s Keeper. One of those volunteers is Sarah Carvalho, a Poinciana resident pursuing her Associate in Arts degree.
“I feel special working there. It’s a really, really important job,” Carvalho said at the luncheon. “We give students food so that they can concentrate in school, and we do it on a person-to-person basis. We treat them the way they need to be treated, individually.”
Torregrossa serves as a perfect example of the impact My Brother’s Keeper makes in the lives of students. He graduated in May with an Associate in Arts and an Associate in Science in Accounting Technology. He also was a member of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society of two-year colleges, and studied in the College’s Honors Program.
His final grade-point average was 4.0.
“Don’t think a little bit here and there doesn’t help; it helps a lot,” Torregross said Thursday. “It makes a difference.
My Brother’s Keeper is open from Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.