Ransom Everglades senior Sophia Elliott hopes to brighten smiles and improve lives by installing a smoothie bar and rooftop fruit garden at the new Lotus Village Women’s Shelter, Miami’s only shelter exclusively for women and children.
A longtime volunteer at the organization’s previous location, Elliott, 18, recently applied for and won a $500 Disney “Be Inspired” grant through Youth Service America for the project. An anonymous donor matched the amount.
On February 10 she and classmates used the funds to build the bar, complete with two high-powered blenders and a small refrigerator to store fruit, and plant seeds and young fruit trees at the Overtown facility.
“I grew up with a lot of fruit trees in my backyard—mangoes, avocados, lychees, bananas—and that was always the norm for me,” she said. “I didn’t realize until interacting with these women that it wasn’t a reality for a lot of people. I want to change that for them, and I thought this was a great way to do it.”
By her count, Elliott has raised more than $6,000 in the last two years for organizations including Lotus House, Children’s Bereavement Center and Inner City Dance Club through painting sales, charity runs, tutoring and her nonprofit baking business, Bake the World Better. The money she raised went to purchasing necessary goods like diapers, mattresses, desks and feminine hygiene products.
She held several workshops to teach residents at Lotus House—the organization’s name and what the shelter was called before the new location opened last month—about nutrition and meal preparation. One time, she brought fresh mangoes from her backyard and showed attendees how to peel, cut and dehydrate them for later use with a pair of dehydrators she and other members of her school’s Women Empowered Club donated. Another time, she showed children how to make “healthy-ish” cupcakes.
“But it is not just about showing up with stuff,” she wrote in an email. “I really enjoy going to the house and teaching classes in fruit dehydrating, gardening, painting, and cake decorating. The kids and their moms really have fun trying new things, and I love sharing.”
As a young girl, Elliott and her sister, Rosie, held weekend bake sales and gave their profits to Lotus House through monetary donations or supplies. Their mother, Miami Herald food critic Victoria Pesce Elliott, regularly took them to the shelter to help, serve food and lend extra hands during holidays.
Elliott said she learned about nutrition from her mother, whose influence changed the way she viewed food. Her trips to Lotus House, in turn, transformed the way she saw the world.
“It really opened my eyes to how much I have to be grateful for: simple things, like a full refrigerator and a computer to look up recipes,” she wrote. “I realized after spending time at Lotus House over the years that it’s not always easy for the residents to eat well when they don’t have access to fresh ingredients.”
Lotus House first opened its doors in 2006 and, according to its website, quickly reached its then-34-guest capacity. Its impact grew through several renovations and expansions, including its popular Lotus House Thrift Chic Boutique, whose profits go to the shelter.
In January, the nonprofit moved into Lotus Village at 217 NW 15th Street. The new 120,000-square-foot facility encompasses a women’s and children’s shelter, children’s wellness center and community health clinic. Other amenities include an arts and activities lab, hair salon and education center.
“The smoothie bar is going to be one of the many luxuries we’ll have for our guests, and it’s going to show how we can partner with different community members to bring something that’s really life-changing and healthy for the mind, body and spirit,” said Lotus House Program Director Isabella Dell’Oca.
Dell’Oca added she and the Lotus House staff hope to set a national skill-building standard at the new facility to ensure the post-shelter success of its residents.
“We’re trying to change the ways people view homeless shelters,” she said.