BRADENTON -- Linda Heaton Gaines has tasted what it's like to be homeless.
In 1988, when she was 48, she lost her job as head of the building and zoning departments in Belle Glade in South Florida. Her parents let her live at home for about a year until she found a job and could live on her own again. While she was living with her parents, she sold tomatoes on the side of the road for spending money.
"If it hadn't been for my parents, I don't know what I would have done," recalls Heaton Gaines, now 71.
Even worse, her mother was very sick and she separated from her husband during this time.
"It was a terrible time," Heaton Gaines said. "You didn't know what was going to come next."
For the last five years, Heaton Gaines, now a retired senior code enforcement officer with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, has devoted her spare time to volunteering with AmeriCorps VISTA, a nonprofit organization committed to fighting poverty. She was recognized for her service and for being the longest-serving volunteer Wednesday at a luncheon at Turning Points in Bradenton.
Heaton Gaines first started her volunteer work with the Community Coalition on Homelessness updating its database. But she wanted to do more than just data entry.
Gaines pitched an idea to set up a speakers bureau designed to educate the public about who makes up the homeless population. She served as coordinator for three years.
People "are seeing the homeless in the streets, but they don't realize that most of the people out there are families with children," Gaines said. We "don't see the young people or the people sleeping in their cars."
Heaton Gaines also started the Garage Sale Commandos, which sends volunteers out to garage sales to ask sellers to donate clothes and other staples.
She's known as Grandma Gaines in area elementary schools where she reads to students and talks with them about the homeless.
To add to her extensive track record, Heaton Gaines started The Open Door Band a band three years ago in a nod to the always-open door at Turning Points. The rock 'n' roll and blues band is made up of her husband, Bill, and a handful of others with experience in homelessness. They play all around the community and, if they get paid, part of the money goes to the homeless.
"She's very dedicated to what she does. She has a lot of compassion and resourcefulness," said Cheryl Hedger, a volunteer coordinator at AmeriCorps VISTA. "That makes her very special. Not everybody can or wants to be able to do this."
Heaton Gaines' work doesn't stop when she leaves the office. Over the last year, she's housed her daughter, 50, who lost her job and is going back to school. For the past month, her cousin's son, 30, who also lost his job, has been living with her and volunteering at Turning Points.
When homeless people come to her office, Gaines writes a pledge with them and has them sign it. She believes her pledges give the homeless a sense of responsibility.
Last week she helped a 20-year-old man with a ninth-grade education who has used drugs recreationally.
His pledge: "I will respect other people. I will not lose my temper. I will not use drugs or alcohol in or around Turning Points. I will like myself."
But he hasn't been back to sign it. He doesn't have a phone so she can't call him.
"It has to be his decision," Heaton Gaines said.