The Star Of The Sea

In the beginning of this journey, 9 months ago, many asked us: What are you going to do about money? Many still ask us the same question. We ask them back: What do we need money for?

Sure, it’s a joke. We all need money for so many things. But if you think about it, we need a lot less money than most of you guys out there asking the question, just because we have less needs than you, and we also have a plethora of alternative ways to get what we need without money. We don’t buy stuff (clothes, shoes, furniture, gadgets, electronics, etc.) simply because we don’t have much use for them, nor space on the boat where to put them. The things we really needed in the beginning after we got the boat were: fibreglass, paint, water pumps, marine toilets repair kits, engine parts, filters, insulation for hatches, buckets, fishing gear, electronics, and charts. For these we did spend money from our savings but hopefully we will not have to buy them too often from now on. Other than that, we are all set.

We don’t pay rent. We drop an anchor somewhere close to shore: it’s free. We don’t have an electricity bill: we have solar panels. We don’t have a car: we have bicycles. We don’t have to pay for freshwater: we collect rainwater or we fill our tanks at the docks for free, and we even have a watermaker which produces freshwater from seawater. We don’t work and we don’t pay taxes.  We fish, we barter, we volunteer at farmers’ markets in exchange for  fruits and vegetables, we even volunteer at museums for free access to art! Everywhere we go, we find a way to „survive“ almost without money.

It has been 3 months now since we last entered a store to buy groceries. We get enough food for the four of us from the Stock Island food bank where we work as volunteers once a week for 2-3 hours. I give a tour to people who come for food and Ivo works in the back unloading crates and arranging them on the shelves. This is one of a very few choice-pantries where people walk through and choose the food they need, which is a much better option than getting two bags of groceries half of which they don’t need, like in most of the other ready-bags pantries.

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

A mother and a girl are choosing groceries at the SOS food bank

The Star of the Sea Mission, or SOS for short, is truly the best food bank we ever came across, providing food, clothing, and services to underprivileged low-income families and individuals in Key West, serving over 90 people per day, providing 57, 000 pounds of food bags per month. Located in a small building on Stock Island, it reminds me more of a home than an institution. There are a few small rooms in the front: an office, a reception room, and a small store. In the back there is a big warehouse with lots of stored goods inside, and a huge backyard populated by well fed chickens, with wooden tables under a big tree where the workers rest and eat lunch and where trucks come and go. Lunch is usually prepared by Lobster Bob for everybody: a big meal with salad and desert.

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

Lunch time in the back yard of SOS food bank

People sign up in the office, wait for not more than 5 minutes in the reception room, and then go in the „store“ where they get to choose two canned goods from this rack, one item from that rack, one meat item from the freezer, two salads from the fridge, two breads, two deserts, two drinks, etc. It’s like shopping, only there is no cashier at the end. And some people take a looong time to choose. No hurry.

A volunteer at SOS food bank

A part-time volunteer at SOS food bank

These are low-income senior citizens, low-income families, and homeless families and individuals who can come once a week, any day, any time, as the SOS is open 5 days a week from 10 am to 5 pm. That is why there are never long lines of waiting people. Most of the other food banks we have seen operate in a church basement for a few hours once a week and people are forced to wait forever in stuffy waiting rooms.

But what makes this particular food bank so wonderfully unique in my mind is the staff, the people who work there.

Donna Knull runs the place since 7 years now.


Donna in the office of SOS food bank

„Some people resent feeding the homeless… They don’t like looking at them let alone feeding them.

I worked 16 years at a hardware store. Then I retired. But couldn’t stay at home doing nothing; I cannot not work. So I started volunteering here. And became director-manager. I wanted to do something I felt good about. To wake up in the morning and be happy to go to work. And here I got so much more back than I have given as a volunteer. This place made me compassionate and understanding of others.

I remember in the beginning, there was this homeless person who came for food and irritated me. We were giving ready-bags back then. She got the bag, looked in it and shoved it back at me, I don’t eat this! But now they don’t irritate me any more, and she is still coming every week. Now I give her a hug when I see her.

I see people walking the streets, sitting in parks, with dirty clothes and backpacks, and I recognize them. I know who they are and I feel good about myself for being able to help them…“

Raquel is second in charge. She receives people and deals with the files. Raquel came from Cuba in 2005.

„I came with my son, a two-year-old baby, in a tiny 12 feet boat. I would never do it again…

We were thirteen people in that boat. It took us three days and there was no food. It was so scary, water everywhere. At some point water started coming inside the boat. The men started putting things in the hole to block it. We managed to get to a small uninhabited island and then the boat sunk. My husband, who was already in the United States, came to pick us up and now we are here…

First, I worked in Orlando, housekeeping. Then we moved here. We lived on a houseboat for three years. I didn’t like it, it was hard…

I started working at the food bank. Not for money, I like to help people. I feel I do something important. Now we have a home. Only when you have a home you realise you can help others who don’t.“

Then, there are the permanent full-time workers: Chris, Lobster Bob, Louis and his girlfriend, and other guys who came from difficult situations: homeless, alcoholics, ex-convicts. Some came through offender programs, others just needed a safe place and a fresh start. For them, The Star of the Seas is truly a home.

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

Louis and his girlfriend both work as full-time volunteers at the SOS food bank

“ This is my safe zone, says Louis who is on parole and needs to serve community hours. I used to drink a lot and get into trouble, and they would arrest me and put me in jail. But when I am here, I know I cannot be drunk, because these are the rules, and I work, and I get food and clothes. I know here I will not get into trouble. It’s my safe zone. Even after I finish my community hours I will keep coming and working here. I love it.“

For many, the food bank is a midway home, a sort of a purgatory, where they get ready for a better life. And Donna loves working with them. They even installed a tobacco machine where everyone can roll a cigarette any time, because, they figured, this will make everyone happier and will prevent people from stealing.

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Lobster Bob, full time volunteer and community cook

Chris is the soul of the place. With a German accent, Chris can tell you loud stories and jokes all day long. He was the first one who gave us a tour when we first came to pick up food and he thought us how to arrange the bread on the shelves, how to walk people through, how to treat them and be careful and all.

Chris, resident, full time worker, and   the "soul" of SOS food bank

Chris, resident, full time worker, and the „soul“ of SOS food bank

And finally, there are the part-time volunteers, mostly retired ladies and gentlemen who come to help once a week, or people like us who like to give back to those who have given them so much. Thank you, Donna, Rachel, Chris, and all you guys at The Star of the Sea Mission! You have made a huge difference for our family!




“I’d rather hop freights around the country and cook my food out of tin cans over wood fires, than be rich and have a home or work.”

-Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

When we first came in the park near Turtle Beach, we noticed a dark mysterious lump  folded in upon itself in a brown sleeping bag lifelessly lying on one of the pick-nick tables. Only two legs, as dark and devastated as ancient totems, protruding from the cover. For a couple of days, the lump did not change its position nor shape. But when a cold front arrived and the temperatures dropped a bit, an old mysterious tortoise-like being emerged beneath its blanket and lugged its massive shell towards a roofed shelter at the other end of the park. I brought him a bowl of hot soup I have just made and cautiously started a conversation. A month later, the conversation still goes on.

Wally in the Night Park

His name is Wilhelm Gilbert von Wahlenmaier the Third, the mayor of the park.  But everyone knows him simply as Wally, the Mayor. And when I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE! Wally has a plethora of friends, a number in the thousands. People just cannot resist his charisma  and every day friends stop to converse with him for hours. He graciously granted us a permission to stay in the park as his ephemeral guests, and so here we are.

A very special relationship grew between us, and is still growing. One of friendship and trust. We learned so much from Wally, not only about his life, but also about many other things. Wally is an educated and well-versed fellow, graduate from Denison University, Granville, Ohio, with a bachelor degree in Business Administration and Marketing. He had a successful real estate career, a big beautiful house, and hundreds of lovers. Until one day…

On November 20 in 2000, Wally closed the last door of his last house behind him and realised to himself, Oh my God, I’m homeless… He rode his bicycle to the nearest park and the park became his new temporary home. It has been for the past twelve years and still is. He knows everything that goes on here, and here, possessed by the craving to recount his younger happier days, he tells us stories of love and betrayal, of war and horror, of glory and dismay. He is also writing a book on The Homeless Situation in Sarasota, Florida, an account of his own experiences, as well as those of countless homeless women and men he met. You see, we don’t event think about it, but often we only perceive the present condition of a person we meet, ignorant of their past, their reasons, their circumstances. A grey pile of forsaken ruins consumed by the devastating effects of time, is in fact the Colosseum once trembling with violent glory and rage. But, Oh boy, Wally was a gladiator, a Titus, a Colosseum.


Born in Columbus, Ohio, in July, 1943, he was a tiny baby paralysed with polio. He overcame it. He overcame everything: his mother’s death when he was 14; thirty three months of hell in North Vietnam when he was only 17; even three marriages, one of which to a terrible Mennonite princess.

But life was always good, and still is for Wally. He never complains, he greets everyone, he enjoys every minute of it. If you pass by in the morning you will here him cheer, Good morning, how are you? I’m fine, how are you, you will respond without stopping. I am marvellous! If I was any better i’d be a twin! And if you stop for a chat, he will tell you one of a thousand around-the-world stories.

In Africa: a hot-air balloon, over the Serengeti, infinite plains stretching before him, the water beasts like ants beneath him, he drifts: a weightless dandelion carried away by the wind, crystal champaign and caviare at sunset, a beautiful lady he loves. (Back on land, he almost gets killed by an irritated Masai warrior for snapping his picture.)

In Greece: an endless table covered with all fruits and fishes of heaven and Earth, a thousand intoxicated guests, a chain of five thousand Sirtaki dancers by the sea, a roasted goat. At the head of the table, he is the guest of honour. Reaching out with a fork, he plucks the roasted goat’s eyeball out and eats it.

In Saint Petersburg, Florida: at the opening of the new Museum of Art, he meets Salvador Dali.

In the Caribbean: he sails on his 27-foot Catalina sailboat for 5 years and almost marries a gorgeous doctor in Barbados. She is still waiting for him. Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah….

In Egypt: down the Valley of the Kings, he meets so many marvellous people.

In New York: 1983, at the Metropolitan Opera, Pavarotti sing for him and Dorothy, his sugar mama, almost twenty years older than him, an artist and an intellectual, he learned so many things from her. They loved each other dearly.

People sometimes listen to Wally’s stories and tell him, You are not real. But you gotta remember, it’s all true. It’s ALL true, he says.

Such is Wally: full of memories and legendary adventures; a  landmark here in the park, and a form of hallucination.

We respect him very much and this last month we shared many stories and many precious moments. One day, when it is time to move on, we will miss him, and surely enough, he will miss us.