During the handful of years that I lived in Orlando, I facilitated a weekly first aid station in downtown Orlando, alongside a Food Not Bombs serving. The station offered free foot care, wound care, herbal tea, and health consults for the houseless community that came to eat breakfast. This was a fairly simple set-up that was easy for me, as an individual, to sustain, so I want to summarize my experience here and encourage others interested in this work to engage with it in ways that might make sense in their context.
I began coming to the food servings to help distribute food. From the very beginning, I had an intention of offering something first aid or herbal, but I spent the first eight months mostly observing. After discussing my ideas with the Food Not Bombs crew, I received encouragement to branch out from the food side of things.
Initially, I offered a care station based around herbal tea, with a side of wound care. Herbal infusions can be potent medicine for anyone with access to hot water, and my friends at the food serving usually had no problem filling their cups with hot water from Seven-Eleven. In fact, one friend always shared his tea with the clerk at the gas station, so I began giving him extra. I used both donated teabags from Traditional Medicinals and Organic India, and mixed my own seasonal or individualized blends (warming teas in winter, cooling in summertime, sedatives for people having difficulty getting a good night’s sleep outside, laxatives for folks taking opiates, etc). Many people resonated with tea, and it was fun. Though I also found it to be time consuming when I tried to blend individualized formulas.
After about six weeks, one individual came to me with a wound on his foot, so I prepared a foot soak. Many saw this and said, “Can I get a soak too?!” It became clear that I should shift my focus from tea to feet. I had previous experience/education in foot care during my early twenties when I lived at the Open Door Community, which offered a weekly foot clinic to the homeless community in Atlanta. I had some limitations that meant this foot care would be on a much smaller scale. First off, my transportation was a bicycle, so I was quite limited in the amount of warm water I could carry (4 gallons). Secondly, I did not have access to electricity or sterile conditions, so I did not use a dremel or sharps (which are common in foot clinics). Thirdly, it was just me, so I could only work on three pairs of feet every week (based on the amount of water I could transport and the amount of time at a food serving). It did not take long for me to be known as the “foot lady”. (Peripherally, I became known to the cops who searched my friends’ belongings as the person who gives out weird little bags with plant material inside).
Here’s the play by play: Every Monday morning, I would load up my bicycle and trailer with supplies and head downtown to work alongside the food serving. Upon arrival, I was met by friends willing to help me set up and friends hoping to meet their own wellness needs. My 3 slots usually filled right away. We immediately set up warm herbal foot soaks. While those recipients were relaxing, we addressed other needs, like wound care, chronic health problems, etc. Sometimes we would just chat about life. After the foot soaks expired, I would go to work on my friends’ feet: cleaning, exfoliating, trimming nails, moisturizing, addressing wounds and blisters, giving out new socks, etc. By the time this was over, Food Not Bombs was about ready to serve a delicious spread of food. Throughout the meal, I was around to address other minor medical needs, check blood pressures, distribute teas and salves, or just hang out. There were always interesting conversations to be had. Some weeks were overwhelmingly busy, and others were more laid back.
I stuck to this routine weekly, and occasionally got fancy trying out new additions, like moxibustion, aromatherapy, ear seeds, and kinesiotape. The NADA protocol (done with ear seeds) got some good feedback. And kinesiotape is magic (but can be kind of expensive). I always had tea, which I would distribute in packs of 7 teabags (though upon focusing on foot care, I rarely made individualized formulas). I also always had three salves: muscle/trauma rub, green band-aid, and anti-fungal salve. I distributed all of these in chapstick tubes.
I was very surprised at how much of a hit the anti-fungal salve was. When I first made it, I was pretty skeptical because salve seems like a poor way to bring medicine to fungus. BUT people loved this stuff, and requested it more than anything else. Toe nail fungus is very common when living on the street because people are using public showers and wearing used shoes. This salve was made of coconut oil infused with Black Walnut hulls, Chaparral, Myrrh, and Usnea, mixed with Spilanthes tincture, and 1-2% Tea Tree essential oil. It was thick and dark brown (I left powdered herbs in it). I would have folks rub it onto the nails and cuticles 1-2x/day. My partner joked that once you put it on, it looks so gross that your toes will always look better when you clean it off.
Eventually, my friend Mark joined me in the work and it was wonderful to be able to expand the amount of foot soaks offered. We each brought our own supplies and worked side by side. Mark is still keeping the station going today.
Overall, this was a very sustainable project for me to keep up with: time-wise, financially, and emotionally. Every week I would spend about 3 hours at the food serving, and another 3 hours prepping and cleaning. I received some donations from the generous herbal community in Orlando, and in dry donation times, it didn’t cost me a lot because foot care doesn’t require much, and tea blends and salves can stretch forever in a small project like this one. (Tinctures are a much more costly medicine to distribute, so I avoided these for the most part). Distributing new socks were the only need that was difficult to keep up with. Emotionally, my involvement in this community was very life-giving. For the past decade, I have spent a significant amount of time with houseless communities, and I am always moved by the ways that people care for each other on the margins. We live in a society that promotes selfishness to the extreme, but in these settings, I am more likely to see people looking out for each other, in trying circumstances no less. I made some very good friends through this project, and after moving away from Orlando, they are what I have missed the most.
For many weeks I was shadowed by Sophia Schultz, who was writing a thesis on Herbal Activism & Solidarity at New College of Florida. Her thesis, which describes much of this station, is shared on the educational resource page.