Charlene Banks remembers her first volunteer gig with Home With A Heart CPS to the exact date and time: On March 8, 2006 at 5 p.m. she took a bus to Tampa for a motivational seminar sponsored by the St. Petersburg organization.
"I got hooked," says Banks, 45.
She immediately joined the six-year-old charity that provides poverty-stricken communities with services ranging from housing and free clothes to vocational and substance abuse programs.
Her new passion for volunteering definitely beats her previous addictions. For nearly seven years, Banks struggled with a crack cocaine and alcohol habit that left her homeless and living in an abandoned building in St. Pete.
"It's hard for women to stay clean, because we use every excuse we can," she says.
Eventually, Banks sought help through substance abuse programs like Access to Recovery and Westcare. Those organizations helped Banks get clean, but she still needed help for housing. That's when Leslie Stokes, Home With A Heart's director, stepped in. She enrolled Banks in the charity's supportive housing, encouraging her to volunteer and share her story.
"Through volunteering I'm staying clean," Banks says. "I really enjoy helping people."
This year, Banks regained custody of her daughter and became the housing coordinator for Home With a Heart CPS.
"I don't get paid," she says, which is true of all Home With A Heart officers. "But just providing me housing is enough."
Now she shuttles back and forth between the charity's offices, where she answers calls for help in the community, the small complex that houses clients suffering from homelessness or substance abuse, and the Heart Store, a thrift shop that sells name-brand clothes for rock-bottom prices to raise money for the organization.
Banks says the charity needs help more than ever after two calamities this year. In February, someone burglarized the organization's offices, stealing cash and computer equipment. Then in October, someone torched a truck used to pick up donations and help residents with moving. The fire spread to the housing complex, damaging a unit.
But Banks doesn't like to dwell on negatives. The charity is constantly getting out more into the community, she says, and new faces pop into the Heart Store all the time. Once the organization attracts more volunteers, she's hoping to start focusing on single mothers and their children.
"If you have a real need for help, somebody is going to help you," she says. "But once you get help, you got to give it back. That's how it continues."