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The Father's Heart: Providing meals for those in need

By Kyla Woodard
Posted 7/4/24

ORANGE PARK —  Nathan Dowd has always had a knack for serving others.  “My heart is for people. So, I want to see people do well. I want to see people happy; I want to see them …

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The Father's Heart: Providing meals for those in need


ORANGE PARK — Nathan Dowd has always had a knack for serving others. 

“My heart is for people. So, I want to see people do well. I want to see people happy; I want to see them confident,” Dowd said. 

Founder of The Father’s Heart, Dowd and his mighty volunteers work to help those in need. On the third Saturday of every month, they deliver food, groceries and supplies with a warm smile, never failing to put the joy back into people’s lives.

Dowd created the nonprofit organization in 2009. Since then, the group has delivered about 6,000 meals monthly to many Clay County families in need. 

Additionally, the organization provides other essential items and services such as diapers, school supplies and tutoring. 

“It’s not limited to the food assistance. But that is our primary mission: to give them food,” Dowd said. “And then as we start to build some relationships with the folks and the families, we can find out some other things and help out with some other stuff as well.”

Dowd said it all started with him and his wife wanting their children to see something besides them on Thanksgiving. They wanted to teach their children the value of helping others. 

The family began delivering food and picked up 27 families in their first year. The following year, Dowd said he got his church involved. The count was increased to 42 families, and the organization kept growing from there.

Dowd said The Father’s Heart is always there to help no matter the time or place. He said his mission stems from a sentimental place in his heart. 

As a former Clay County school teacher of 17 years, Dowd said he remembers seeing kids and families struggling on a daily basis. He recalled one of his students walking to school in flip-flops on a cold day in February. Standing before him with blue toes, Dowd asked the boy if he was cold.

 Dowd said the boy responded no, but he knew otherwise. 

Dowd said this time, plus countless others left a lasting mark on him. Seeing his students in low-income situations or unsure of where they were going to get their next meal made him want to do something about it.

So, he did.

Working within the school system, Dowd said he was able to partner with the school and obtain referrals for students and their families in need. 

“When I saw them coming in my classroom just not knowing where they're going to eat next, for that week and stuff, it just got my attention,” Dowd said. 

In 2015, Dowd said he desired to turn his endeavor into something full-time. 

Dowd said the organization survived because he paid some of the bills and thanked a few friends and family for the rest. 

However, The Father’s Heart transitioned into finding new ways to raise money for its cause. The mobile Southern Smoke BBQ is a branch of the organization that serves as its primary funding source.

With a slogan of "feed yourself to feed someone else," the catering truck goes to many local events, including festivals, parties and weddings, to make a difference by selling delicious hot plates.

“We’re pretty much open to whatever we can do along those lines in order to raise some support and some funds for what we’re doing,” Dowd said. 

After retiring from the Clay County District Schools, Dowd made his hobby his full-time job. He can work more with his team of dedicated volunteers to positively impact the community. 

Volunteer Ali Helms said she is a driver for The Father’s Heart food pantry, delivering groceries to families every month. 

Helms said that during that time, she has gotten to know the families to whom she has delivered food personally. Helms’ entire delivery route is for single moms with little children, making for a humbling experience.

“It is very impactful when you are in the community where you live,” Helms said. “And, you see how great a need is right under your nose that you might not necessarily know was there.” 

She remembered a time during a delivery when a little boy came running out of his front door.

“He was just going, ‘Mommy, mommy, the lady with the good stuff is here.’ It just melts your heart,” Helms said. 

Joyce and Freddy Baker have been volunteering for the organization by preparing and packing the meal bags. 

Joyce said seeing Dowd’s mission come to life is a joy.

“They’ll send me notes. I know about their families, I know about their kids, I know about when they’re in pain or when they’re having trouble,” Joyce said. “And we talk, we pray with them.” 

Volunteer Keira McCoy was introduced to The Father’s Heart through her consistent outreach in the community. McCoy noted that serving with the organization for 15 years and watching its impact has been monumental. 

“It’s a worthwhile project because it is close to home,” McCoy said. “It is local, not some radio scheme that nobody sees results from. We’re talking with the families, we’re connecting with families that are receiving the benefits of his heart to extend the love of the father by meeting tangible needs.”

For Sarah Mosher and her husband, Robert, the organization became their saving grace. The two met Dowd more than 10 years ago when they were homeless.

“They sheltered us. They fed us,” Mosher said. “They helped us get things we needed.”

As an ex-veteran, Mosher said the two eventually got on their feet, obtaining a new apartment and a job. But The Father’s Heart never let them go. She said she’s unsure if they would have survived without Dowd’s help. 

“We have no family. The Father’s Heart is our family,” Mosher said. 

Mosher said their light continues to shine, even years later, on her family. She said that Robert was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, and getting him to and from treatment has been challenging.

“We have no car. The Father’s Heart makes sure he gets to every appointment,” Mosher said. “If it wasn’t for that, my husband could die.” 

Mosher said she will always be grateful for the friendship and camaraderie the group has brought her and her husband. 

In addition to providing meals, The Father’s Heart has also tried starting a tutoring program. After the pandemic shutdown, Dowd said that the organization has backed up the program this year.

“It’s been very successful in helping kids. The ones we initially targeted were kids struggling to pass the high school test to graduate high school,” Dowd said.

Dowd said they have been focusing on third graders who need help passing their reading tests in the last two years. 

“That’s kind of been like a giraffe trying to stand up. Meaning it’s very wobbly and it’s maybe fallen down and gotten back up,” Dowd said. “And, we’re trying to get that off the ground.” 

Many in his community, including the Clay County Chamber of Commerce, have recognized Dowd's efforts. Dowd said it’s humbling, but his choice of work isn’t solely for the recognition. 

“To me, it’s more about can we help some folks. And, as these other opportunities come along that we get recognized, it’s humbling for me,” Dowd said. “Every time.”

Dowd hopes to expand his outreach to other counties in the future, including Duval, Putnam and Bradford. 

“We just have to be strategic in how we make those steps to do that,” Dowd said. 

Dowd said The Father’s Heart is always looking for volunteers and food donations for the cause. 

As a Clay County native, Dowd is committed to serving and giving back to the community he was raised in. Since 2009, Dowd said the organization has served more than a million meals to those in need, and he hopes to keep it going. 

“Being able to impact as many families as possible is what we would like to see,” Dowd said.