FGCU alumni leading the fight against hunger and homelessness

Author: Karen Booth, FGCU 360
FGCU alumni working at Community Cooperative include, from left, Hoyuky Pec, Blair Fretwell, Kate Major, Tami Holliday, Grisel Brewster and John Roberts. (Credit: FGCU 360)

Florida Gulf Coast University’s founders understood that community service is a profoundly transformative experience that enriches lives as well as learning. Period.

Service-learning, a core component of FGCU’s curriculum and values, is the means by which students learn the why and how of community service – a learn-by-doing model woven into the very fabric of the university since its inception. Students admitted to FGCU as first-year students or lower-level transfers must complete 80 hours of service-learning as part of their graduation requirement, while students admitted as upper-level transfers must complete 40 hours. For some students, service is firmly rooted in their DNA; for others, it’s a whole new journey of discovery.

Not surprisingly, seven FGCU alumni for whom service is central to their lives now work at Community Cooperative in Fort Myers, an organization committed to eliminating hunger and homelessness in Lee County. Eagle undergrads often work alongside them through internships and service-learning opportunities.

Stefanie Ink Edwards (’08, Marketing) Chief Executive Officer

Stefanie Ink Edwards was appointed chief executive officer in June 2022 after seven years with the organization. “Community Cooperative is a grassroots nonprofit organization founded nearly four decades ago by concerned citizens who realized there were people in our community who were going hungry,” she said.

Stefanie Ink Edwards says loves working with fellow FGCU alumni: “They’re well-rounded individuals, hardworking, talented and dedicated to the community.” (Credit: FGCU 360)

“Today we specialize in a holistic approach, offering education and resources to those who are experiencing food insecurity or are on the brink of homelessness,” said Edwards. “We look to not only meet the immediate need of making sure someone isn’t hungry, but help determine why and  what resources they may need to help a person onto the path to success.”

But that’s just one piece. The organization also operates Meals on Wheels, Sam’s Community Café and Kitchen, Social Services and Education Resource Center and the Community Market as well as a healthy school food pantry program, a mobile on-site school food pantry and more. Programs are supported by philanthropy and grants from community partners including United Way and Lee County.

Community Cooperative’s impact is powerful. In Lee County, one in six residents are in need of food assistance. In 2021 alone, the cooperative assisted more than 42,226 Lee County residents, providing more than 2 million pounds of food to neighbors in need. To accomplish this herculean task, the cooperative relies on the help of volunteers who logged over 32,000 hours.

Eagle alum Edwards acknowledges she might be a bit biased, but said unequivocally, she loves working with the FGCU alumni, each making a real difference in people’s lives. “They’re well-rounded individuals, hardworking, talented and dedicated to this community and I am proud to work alongside them to make a difference to folks in community who need a little hand up,” she said.

Kate Major (’14, Social Work) Social Work and Education Manager

Kate Major is a difference maker. Her journey began as a child at the side of her grandmother. “I credit my grandmother for teaching me the importance of community, and I give credit to FGCU for their service-learning program, their energy and the many volunteer opportunities.”

“I’m grateful for the community I live in and passionate about the work I do,” Eagle alumna Kate Major said. (Credit: FGCU 360)

While at FGCU, Major interned at the Community Cooperative, helping with special events and engaging in community outreach. She loved the experience and stayed on for one year after graduation. She then accepted a social worker position in a private practice for a couple of years, worked for Lee Health for a bit and, finally, in October 2021 found her way back to Community Cooperative.

“I needed the time to grow and find my roots, the time to realize how lucky I was to be at the Community Cooperative,” said Major. “I’m grateful for the community I live in and passionate about the work I do. I feel like I make a difference here. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.”

Major supervises FGCU alumni John Roberts, (’18, Social Work), homeless care social worker, and Hoyuky Pec (’20, Social Work), family and elder care social worker; and, together with Pec, mentors Leticia Martinez, one of several FGCU interns.

Leticia Martinez (’22, Social Work) FGCU Intern

While Leticia Martinez had performed community service prior to engaging with the service-learning program at FGCU, she said that interning at Community Cooperative has broadened her knowledge base.

FGCU students Leticia Martinez, Sean Stahursky and Erica Parker are interning at Community Cooperative this spring. (Credit: FGCU 360)

“Honestly, at first I was a little intimidated working with the homeless population. I’d never done that before. But you learn as you go. Over time, I’ve developed clients of my own, and I learned a lot from them. It is an eye-opening experience.”

Martinez has nothing but good things to say about FGCU’s service-learning requirement. “It’s a good thing to do regardless of your major. Everything I’ve learned is applicable in some way to my future goal, which is to work with children in my community.

“I’ve always had a passion for doing the best I can for my community. I grew up in Immokalee,” she said. “There’s a lot of poverty there, and I’d like to work with the children. My internship has taught me lots that will be useful to me in my career.”

Blair Fretwell, (’05, Financing and Accounting) Chief Financial Officer

Blair Fretwell had service in her blood. Prior to joining Community Cooperative in 2013, she worked for several years for a private CPA firm. However, when the CFO position opened at Community Cooperative, she made the transition. “It’s still numbers, but the numbers I deal with on a day-to-day basis make a positive impact on someone’s life.”

In 2021 alone, Community Cooperative assisted more than 42,226 Lee County residents, providing more than 2 million pounds of food to neighbors in need. (Credit: FGCU 360)

Prior to attending FGCU, Fretwell had a solid base of community service, having volunteered with Jobs Daughters, a Masonic affiliated youth organization for girls and young women focused on confidence building and skills training. She, too, welcomed FGCU’s service-learning requirement and opted to continue her volunteer work with Jobs Daughters.

“I love the mission of Community Cooperative,” she said. “It’s really opened my eyes to the needs of the community. I believe it’s so important to give back, so people don’t feel forgotten. People need to know they’re loved. We’re all God’s children.”

Rounding out FGCU’s cohort of alumni at Community Cooperative are Tami Holliday (’12, Legal Studies), community relations manager; and Grisel Brewster (’12, Legal Studies) director of development.

“Meeting people where they are is instilled in us,” said Major. “It is important to have grace when working with individuals and agencies. Talking with students, clients and our partners, and encouraging others is the only way to feel fulfilled in daily life. It’s a very humbling experience.”

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