NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. – Kyrja Withers is a force. She is an elemental Witch with ties to Norse deities, and also the author of “Rupert’s Tales.”
She and her husband, Randy, who is also an elemental Witch with the same ties to Norse gods, created another force, called Hands of the Goddess, a volunteer effort in Pasco County, Florida, that uses “collective skills, talents, wits, and magick” to create a community of helpers to serve the needs of the homeless. It is a registered charity in the United States.
Hands of the Goddess works with partners, friends, and other allies to ensure to link “individuals facing [a] crisis situation with needed services when and where appropriate.” They do boots-on-the-ground community work, providing the homeless and financially insecure in their community with everything from blankets to toiletries to monetary donations.
Kyrja knows those needs well. “Having raised kids as a single parent,” she says, “I had plenty of personal experience with just how difficult it could be to afford toilet paper, let alone luxuries like shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, and feminine hygiene products. Nor did any of the food banks I visited offer toiletries; I know, because I asked repeatedly.”
Kyrja says that she and her husband do this “because of who we choose to be, and there isn’t much about either one of us that isn’t directly tied to the fact that we are Pagans.” She links the Hands of the Goddess squarely with their Pagan practice: they work to serve, to help, and to make things a little better for those in need.
Hands of the Goddess got its start ten years ago. Randy would offer his help as a plumber to friends, and then occasionally friends of friends. Through those connections, the couple met a woman who operated a small shelter for disabled homeless women in her home. The more they learned about her challenges, the more determined they became to find ways to support her and her efforts.
They began with toiletries. “At that time,” says Kyrja, “we had no idea what we had just started!”
A year later they were raising funds, then creating a Pagan charity that delivered services to individuals who had lost their homes or suffered domestic abuse and violence – anyone needing a little help. By 2014, Hands of the Goddess was increasingly active in the community and working with partner agencies.
Hands of the Goddess also encountered challenges, however. Local officials blocked their efforts because, as Kyrja recalls, they weren’t the traditional Christian charity. But colleagues came to their defense and offered shop space. Hands of the Goddess was invited to remain at their location even after other groups there closed because of political challenges in the community.
“As representatives of Hands of the Goddess,” Kyrja recalls, “wearing our pentacle-emblazoned t-shirts, we have attended County Commission Board meetings, and have met with many government and agency officials advocating on behalf of our homeless neighbors. I would venture to say there are few elected representatives who do not know who we are and what we are about.”
They do collection drives at many local Pagan events. It is clear to the community partners and the politicians that Hands of the Goddess is a Pagan-powered organization doing hands-on service for homeless and at-risk neighbors.
Now they are known and present. “Probably the best part though,” Kyrja says, “is when we see some of the folks we serve out and about and they don’t hesitate to say hello, shake our hands, stop to chat, and get hugs. Friends. We call each other friends.”
Hands of the Goddess is in full force in Pasco County. Every Thursday they do a Florida Food Force (F3) food distribution. They have monthly collections for pet food and toiletries followed by monthly donation distribution.
Kyrja says the most important thing the organization does is offer choices to their neighbors. With volunteers to set up tables in an area, they organize the donations in their areas. Then, they give their clients a bag with rolls of toilet paper and invite them to go through the line of tables selecting what they need.
Clients have a variety of necessities: “P38 can openers, lighters, batteries, condoms, salt and pepper shakers they can (re)fill on the spot, reading glasses, lip balm, rain ponchos, and so much more,” says Kyrja. “Along with shampoo, shaving cream, soaps, toothpaste, combs, and those kinds of things. We also provide bottles of laundry soap and dish soap, as well as dog food and cat food. And quite a bit of food these days, thanks to donations from Big Lots.” The Withers sort all the food and make sure that everyone gets as much as possible. Then she gets the word out on social media like Facebook.
Hands of the Goddess uses funds to secure food for the families they serve. Kyrja says “We currently have 24 families who participate in our program. We pay Florida Food Force on a monthly basis, and each of our families pays us on a monthly basis, but we get food every week. Sometimes we get meat, dairy, breads, fresh fruits, and/or vegetables.”
Recently COVID-19 has changed their practices. They now have to pre-fill bags. They have the added tasks of sterilizing the tables and the items as well as advising others of social distancing.
Hands of the Goddess is seeing other new challenges lately too. “We have noticed an uptick in the number of “at-risk” individuals coming to our monthly outreach events,” says Kyrja. “Because we have provided this service in the same place for a number of years, we are pretty familiar with who is and is not unsheltered/homeless. We are seeing a lot of new faces. And everyone seems to be more subdued than usual. There’s not as much chatter nor laughing. Volunteer Way [a partner organization] has security on-site now, to enforce social distancing, and to discourage loitering. There is a marked increase in interest in food items.”
Kyrja invites other members of the Pagan community to help. “One of the items we offer our unsheltered neighbors is plastic mats crocheted out of plastic grocery bags. I have completed 100 of these mats since I first started making them in 2013. Making the plarn” – that is, plastic yarn – “and/or the mats is an excellent way to help us to help others. Because of current social distancing restrictions, however, we are not able to put volunteers to work during our Hands of the Goddess Outreach or F3 Thursday events.”
Money is tight at the moment, and social distancing restrictions have made it difficult to raise funds. “At the end of 2019, after two and a half years of offering super-cool witchy raffles and auctions, we sincerely thought Hands of the Goddess would come to an end because those activities had provided amazing funding for our outreach and other activities. We thought we would run out of money by April 2020 for sure – especially since we started doing the Florida Food Force food distribution; it’s an expensive undertaking.”
That didn’t happen, thankfully, as the community Kyrja and Randy have built stepped up to help. They still need donations of items as well as financial contributions, but they are making do. Kyrja says she is grateful for the opportunity to serve and asks everyone to practice kindness to their homeless neighbors.
Kyrja is happy to continue doing her work. “The gods are obviously not yet done with us.”