F4, Fiorenza's Food for Friends: One man's way of feeding all

At the Philadel- phia Brotherhood Mission Ministries on East Girard, minister Eric Dorsey (center) introduced Derek Fiorenza when he came to drop off food for a Christmas dinner last week.

Derek Fiorenza was emphatic: "It's not about me; it's about them."

That may be his preference, but given his accomplishments, this modest young man will have to suffer the embarrassment of exposure.

He is 23, grew up in Downingtown, and was salutatorian of the Class of 2005 at Bishop Shanahan High School.

He earned his degree in communication and business from Villanova University in three years.

He recently added a master's degree in business from California University of Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, where he was a punter on the football team. Mike Conway, the coach who recruited him, calls him "one of the most amazing young men I've met, on and off the field."

Last summer, he mentored 10 fellow football players who were struggling academically. "He would not accept failure," Conway says. "He called them constantly and stayed on them like a parent. Thanks to his tenacity, every one of those kids got eligible."

For nearly three years, he worked part-time for his father's benefits consulting company in King of Prussia, selling health and life insurance, while commuting between here and western Pennsylvania every week.

As a boy, following the example of his parents, he volunteered at shelters and soup kitchens, serving meals to the homeless, especially around the holidays.

In high school, the summer before his senior year, he spent two weeks in Lourdes, France, where he helped the sick and dying who had come seeking a cure.

He wears his long blond hair in a ponytail, not as a fashion statement, but so he can donate his golden locks to a charity that makes high-quality hairpieces for children who have lost their hair.

This weekend he'll be busy. On Saturday, he'll attend the wedding of his girlfriend's sister in Florida. At 6 a.m. Sunday, he'll fly back to Philadelphia so he can oversee F4 - Fiorenza's Food for Friends.

Fiorenza started it in 2007 after teaming up with Marc Boornazian and Sean Dannaker of Mizuna Catering in West Chester. The idea was to make the holidays brighter for the needy and homeless by serving them a delicious meal.

That first year, Fiorenza, his family, friends, and volunteers served 25 meals at a homeless shelter in Coatesville. Mizuna donated and prepared the food, featuring stuffed chicken breast with marsala wine sauce.

In 2008, the effort doubled, 50 meals at two shelters; last year, it doubled again, 100 meals at four locations. This year, F4 plans to serve holiday meals to 1,000 people at 14 shelters and social-service agencies in seven Southeastern Pennsylvania counties, as well as 350 additional people in the Pittsburgh area.

"Serving and helping others is a great way to start the Christmas season," Fiorenza says.

The job of organizing and coordinating such an effort has been consuming. For the last several weeks, Fiorenza has been glued to his cell phone, recruiting volunteers, soliciting donations from restaurants and businesses.

Villanova's dining service will be supplying 1,000 meals (turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans). Mizuna Catering will be preparing a thousand salads. Amoroso's is donating a thousand rolls. The Pepsi Bottling Group of West Chester is providing 1,200 cans of soda. Target, Wal-Mart, and Giant gave Fiorenza gift cards for desserts, utensils, and more drinks. Fwd>direct, a marketing company in Downingtown, printed a thousand F4 brochures.

"There's a lot of good in the world that you don't hear about in the news," Fiorenza says. "Even the restaurants that said no suggested they'd be open to it in the future. It's given me a lot of hope."

In case it isn't obvious, Fiorenza dreams big. He'd like to expand the program to provide another regional feast in July, and ultimately take it national and serve a million.

"It starts with one person who gets it going and it has a ripple effect that I hope inspires others to do likewise," Fiorenza says.

Boornazian calls Fiorenza "St. Derek." His mother, Laura, watches her high-energy son ("we've been chasing him since he was a toddler") in amazement. "What he does in a day most people don't do in weeks.

"He's always been extremely resilient. When things don't go his way, instead of building up resentment, he turns it around and makes it into something good."

Fiorenza's logic of charity: "I've been very blessed. With great blessings comes the obligation to help others who are less fortunate."

Besides, it's not entirely selfless. Wise beyond his years, he knows enhancing the well-being of others enhances one's own well-being. If F4 goes as planned, he knows he'll feel "an incredible sense of accomplishment."

"What I'm giving I'll get back tenfold in smiles and happy faces."

Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

If you're interested in volunteering for F4, call Derek Fiorenza at 484-467-7899 or e-mail him at derek.fiorenza@gmail.com.

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