Operation Float collected donations for hurricane victims from throughout the community, including local schools.
PINELLAS PARK – Like many individuals around the country, a group of several friends in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park were horrified as they heard the news about the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49 people and wounded 58 others.
Cici Danielson, Jess Smith, Michael Dacosta, Mick Ferrari and Tristan Weghorn decided they wanted to do something to help those directly affected by the attack and sprung to action.
“We wanted to actually do something,” Dacosta said.
So the group collected food, water and monetary donations with the help of several Pinellas County businesses, including Largo’s Quench Lounge.
“And we delivered it right to Orlando,” he said. “We went right to Orlando Regional [Medical Center] and fed meals to every family that had a victim. We fed first responders. We responded rapidly and were able to move quickly.”
The group reactivated in August after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, but this time on a greater scale.
Danielson grew up in Texas and wanted to help out, Dacosta said. So yet again, the friends reached out to business connections in the Pinellas County community.
Quench Lounge stepped up with donations, as did many other businesses.
The kava community – Dharma Hookah Lounge, Muddy Water Kava and Mad Hatters Ethnobotanical Tea Bar – supported the efforts by serving as staging areas for donations.
Ferarri, owner of Got Split Ends? who lives in Pinellas Park, collected donations at his hair salon.
Dacosta, also a Pinellas Park resident, involved his Awakening Wellness Center.
The project, by then called Operation Float, eventually connected with Everyday Hero Project, a 501(c)3 non-profit that offered to serve as its umbrella organization.
“This effort has grown so amazingly,” Dacosta said. “But Everyday Hero Project has really been the driving force
Pinellas Technical College in St. Petersburg offered Operation Float the use of a 26’ truck to deliver collected donations – baby formula, water, food, clothing for all ages, cleaning supplies.
As the group packed up a truck to deliver these supplies, Hurricane Irma emerged as a direct threat to Florida.
“We held back half of what we collected and didn’t send the full truck because Irma looked like it was going to hit here,” Dacosta said. “We didn’t feel, as an organization, that with our donations coming from Florida it was fair to use all of it out of state.”
As a result, Operation Float was able “hit the ground running” when Irma hit, said Catalina Farrington, executive director, Everyday Hero Project.
As other organizations were struggling to amass donations for Irma victims in Florida, Operation Float was able to deliver supplies as soon as the weather cleared.
“We would have never gotten all of these things in place had we not already brought the community together and inspired people to be in this mindset,” Farrington said. “We felt like Operation Float was able to help immediately.”
Dacosta added, “We were two weeks ahead of people who hadn’t collected for Irma yet.”
Since Irma, Operation Float has made several trips from Naples to Fort Lauderdale and stops in between, including Everglade City. Partners they worked with to distribute these goods included the Naples United Church of Christ and organizers of the Walk for Earth movement.
By the time the group completed its first major trip to South Florida at the end of September, Dacosta estimates that they had given out about $25,000 worth of goods and supplies, a number that will keep growing, he added.
Now the group is thinking about its future. It hopes to spread further into Puerto Rico with supplies. But in general, the group plans to be around for the long term.
“We’re just getting started,” Dacosta said. “We’ve created a coalition of linked-up business people who can respond to a crisis,” Dacosta said. “We’re just getting started.”